Thursday, August 28, 2003

I don't much like "creative writing" either, Jonathan. Here's what I wrote on the syllabus I handed out to live, breathing students today:
     A student asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”
     “Well,” the writer said. “I don’t know. . . Do you like sentences?”
     If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I liked the smell of the paint.”
                   —Annie Dillard
This is a course in imaginative writing. I prefer “imaginative writing” to “creative writing” because all writing is creative to some degree, but not all writing is devoted to seeing the world freshly, to discovering unexpected relations between things, or even to creating entirely new worlds. The material with which we’ll be making these investigations is language, which unlike paint or musical notes has the property of both being something (a combination of sounds, an arrangement of letters) and meaning something. Playing with language on both of these levels is as necessary to a writer’s education as fooling around with different colors is to a painter, or improvising a melody to match a rhythm is to a jazz musician. A writer can create a great deal with his or her language: characters, images, emotions, dialogue, settings, a sense of time’s passage, and of course plot and narrative. But cultivating a sensitivity toward the stuff of language itself—words and phrases and paragraphs and sentences, syntax and diction and punctuation—comes first. You must like the smell of the paint.
It's true that this doesn't wholly evade the basic dorkiness of "creative writing." On the other hand, since this is not strictly a poetry course, I don't want to substitute "poetry writing," even though I'm convinced that poets have the best possible attitude and orientation to language and acquire muscles thinking about the materiality of language that can be enormously useful to a prose/fiction writer. Anyway that's what I'm telling my students.

One of my goals, at least for now, is not to censor myself just because there might be students reading this blog. Which is kind of like trying to find the right note to hit when you run into a student at a bar or something, especially after you've had a couple of drinks.

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