Creative Writing

         as  a Tool for Exercising

                                        Civil Presence

                                                                      “I take it that what all men are really after is some form or perhaps only some formula of peace.”

Joseph Conrad

I am going to discuss certain educational benefits of creative writing to argue that creative writing, as an educational tool, could play an important role in preparing students to function in a civil and diverse society.

Implemented in primary and high schools along with other types of art education, creative writing provides students with the agency to imagine their surroundings as alterable, no longer subject to fate, but open to improvement and change.

Writing about what they know and responding to their peers’ work broadens students’ understanding beyond the scope of their own worlds—inviting them to acknowledge the feelings, grievances, and aspirations of their characters as much as the those of their classmates, and, last but not least, their own.

Within the framework of a multiethnic society, students of creative writing receive detailed information about each other’s cultures that wouldn’t be available to them by any other means. This information may not seem complex at first, but is essential and formative to the growth of a student as a person within a community.

It may be worthwhile to revisit the concept of creative writing at this particular time when the public and governments worldwide are, at best, ambivalent at the sight of men and women arriving from war-ridden countries and anti-refuge sentiments are on the rise.

In the world outside it seems that it may take centuries for Christians and Muslims to overcome prejudices and biases. In the context of creative writing, as soon as young people of different faiths and ethnicities begin to share their written work, communication and genuine mutual interest in each other’s realities readily follows.

According to one down-to-earth definition, creative writing is considered to be any writing, fiction or non-fiction that goes outside the bounds of journalistic, academic, and technical forms of literature. Works that fall into this category include novels and short stories on the one hand, autobiography and memoir, as well as creative non-fiction on the other, and finally playwriting, and poetry. Creative writing is about the process rather than the finished product and, as such, it is believed to develop students’ self-expression. Yet self-expression is not the only or even the ultimate benefit; it serves as a tool, prompting students to embrace more serious issues, such as: life and death, loyalty, betrayal, and personal responsibility, to name a few.

It is only since World War Two that creative writing has progressively gained prominence in university settings. At first, considered an extension of English departments; presently, it increasingly becomes less of an extension and more of the cornerstone of departments otherwise traditionally focused on critical study of literary forms rather than on their creation. Some academics perceive creative writing as a challenge to this tradition. William Stegner recalls how he once dined with dons at Magdalen College, Oxford.

They stood me up and filled me as full of arrows as St. Sebastian. I presume they all believed that writing must be learned—that it is a gift that needs developing and disciplining—but none of them believed that it is a legitimate subject for a university course.

All I could say in answer was that they lived under privileged conditions. In England, a small country the size of some American states, a young writer can go to London, frequent the right Hampstead pub, meet literary people, begin to do a few of the chores of literary journalism—a book review here, a little article there, a poem, a critical essay—and in that way begin a literary apprenticeship. (8)

But, he concluded, in the US, “for many Americans who grow up in the provinces, as I did, there is no convenient and inevitable place to go to make contact with other writers and with the writing establishment—the general technology of writing” (9).

To consider creative writing a discipline in its own right becomes conceivable if we think about the analogy between the study of visual arts and creative writing. The study of fine arts is unlikely to be perceived as an offshoot of art criticism and art history, although these disciplines can become complementary in the course of study. We perceive these boundaries more clearly in the case of fine arts because a painter and an art critic use two different sets of tools. Meanwhile, a creative writing apprentice and a student of literary criticism, to an uninvolved observer, appear to be doing the same—writing.

One question I have heard countless times in reference to creative writing is: Can you teach creative writing to anyone? What is really being asked here is this: Can you educate anyone to become a Nobel Prize recipient? The answer is: No, you cannot, nor is there ever such a need. It suffices that we educate our students to become gifted readers. And literature is always in need of readers.

Graduates of creative writing programs are preserving the tradition of reading; they are primary book buyers; they often become brilliant editors and teachers.

Interestingly, no one expects the academies of fine arts to deliver a batch of geniuses every year. Instead, it is expected that their graduates, apart from the few who become acclaimed professional painters and sculptors, eventually find work in art galleries, museums, and art schools.

Creative writing is not only an alternative and process-oriented name for what is called literature. On a basic level, creative writing can be seen as no more than an act of keeping records of significant experiences, which may, but need not develop into professional writing. It may be simply about sharing experience with a writing group or about a personal quest for new modes of individual expression.

Most importantly, however, creative writing, when used for educational purposes, in primary schools, high schools, and community colleges, as well as universities, plays, or could play an important role in preparing students to function in a civil and multiethnic society.

With this educational plan in mind, students are expected to write about what they know, and then read, listen, and respond to each other’s work.

This is how students receive complex and detailed cultural information. While they continue learning from published writers and authority figures, they become largely inspired and enlightened by their peers’ writing. I have seen this happen in the city college of Oakland, California, in classes formed mostly of immigrant students, during in-class draft workshops—draft workshops of writing assignments that were semi-creative, within the critical thinking curriculum. But the process can start much earlier; in fact, as early as first grade.

With political powers hovering out of balance around the world, creative writing, in my view, could become an important part of a larger peace project, and could be successfully implemented to end ethnic animosities and even wars.

In a society where people come from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and carry a variety of life experiences into a classroom, once they begin to write together, they can take a closer look at racial and sexual prejudices, and approach them in ways unimagined and inconceivable to them before. Once they discover each other’s uniqueness, they realize that we are more similar than we are different. We are unique, but human emotions and desires are much the same across the world.

Creative writing students are not simply practicing acceptance; they are learning how to listen to one another. Eventually, they discover how their lives are part of a larger pattern and that no life deserves to be wasted.

Literature is no charity. We don’t hand out alms (food, clothing, and money) to our characters, we don’t go around “visiting the poor,” meaning the dispossessed; we become the poor and the dispossessed. While writing, we practice speaking out via our characters; we learn to differentiate between just and unjust, reliable and unreliable. As soon as we make a conscious effort to take this practice out of our writing realm alone, and into our daily lives, we are better prepared to speak up when we see injustice taking place before our eyes.

We find ourselves capable of experiencing affinity with a victim of harassment, regardless of whether she is a university professor, an immigrant mother, or both.

Literature’s role, as I see it, is to produce a particular form of civil disobedience, a non-violent opposition to political oppression, as well as to daily measures of social brutality, as we see it perpetuated even under democracy. In politics, the greater good prevails, in literature it is mostly individual good that strives for recognition. This is why writers appear to politicians as so troublesome.

Writers are forever looking for imperfections in the next version of an ideal political system. Arundhati Roy titled her first and only novel The God of Small Things, on the premise that small things are easily overlooked while cast systems combined with chronic poverty rule people’s lives, and these small things are actually small people reduced to objecthood. In the same vein, literature as civil disobedience used to be practiced and perfected by some Polish writers under communism. To criticize what you have once desired may become troubling, yet this is when a writer has a chance to be deemed ungrateful.

It seems to me that even the most conservative of writers, as long as they remain writers, appear shockingly liberal in the eyes of politicians. A writer can even nurture despotic tendencies in his or her work or psyche, but he or she is still likely to be perceived as a threat to political power.

Literature exists not in the “art for art’s sake” form but rather embedded in political complexities. As Salman Rushdie argues in his famous essay “Outside the Whale”: “We live in a world without hiding places; the missiles have made sure of that.” As much as we cannot “return to the womb,” as much as we must recognize that “there is no whale,” we can teach our students how not to be “the servant[s] of some beetle-browed ideology. He [or she] can be its critic, its antagonist, its scourge.” And this is why keeping literature alive becomes such an important civil duty.

We have to keep literature alive (by reading, writing, and delivering it into the public discourse) so that we remain, as readers and writers, in opposition to the despotic powers of the world. So we can name, identify, and disempower them. Believing that we cease to perpetuate violence only when we become suddenly empowered, only when we take over, only when we conquer our enemies, only when we are welcome as members of the elite, is wrong. This is when indeed it becomes too late. But we can start an anti-violence movement in schools, and creative writing can help, because those who write have no time to perpetuate vengeance.

This paper was presented first as a lecture “Creative Writing as a Peace Project” (Literatur Huset, Oslo 2008); then in its current form at Parallel International Conferences: Scholars as Fictionists, or On-Off Campus Creative Writing, Gdańsk University, October 2-4 2015.

Works Cited:

Rushdie, Salman. “Outside the Whale.” Granta 11 (1984). Granta. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Stegner, Wallace. On the Teaching of Creative Writing. New Hampshire: University Press of New England 1997.