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What Four Years of Creative Writing Have Taught Me

What Four Years of Creative Writing Have Taught Me

In 2020, I took my first college-level creative writing class. It was held on Zoom (compliments of COVID-19), and I wrote a clunky 500-word piece that was, in part, about a bug.

Now, at the end of four years of writing prose, poetry, and hymns, my writing has become (at least slightly) more sophisticated. Here are three key things I’ve learned.

1. Attentiveness Is Key

In any piece of creative writing, attentiveness is key. I had to learn this early on: One professor continually quoted poet William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.” Williams believed that the best writing came from intense physical specificity.

And indeed, attentiveness elevates creative writing. It allows Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 to see Clarisse’s face as “slender and milk-white,” while “in it was a kind of gentle hunger that touched over everything with tireless curiosity.” It fosters the detail of Chaim Potok in My Name Is Asher Lev, speaking through his narrator: “I painted [the gulls] over and over again, using watercolors or washes of oils; painted their soarings into the sun, their wings in the wind, their wide diving circles over the surface of the waves.” It brings Kathleen Norris in Dakota to say of the Dakotas, “Just before dawn all is blue: I barely see the lark bunting light on a fence post.”

In each of these examples—and, indeed, in all good creative work—specificity, the product of attentiveness, breeds engagement.

And the benefits of attentiveness are not restricted to creative writing. By learning to pay attention, we are equipped to serve others better: We see needs more quickly and can respond to them well. In addition, attentiveness allows us to see the wonder of the world we inhabit. There is indeed “beauty in the commonplace,” though the intricacy of the plants, objects, and (most significantly) people in our world can be easy to miss.

2. Words Are Complex

We often think of words only in terms of how they are defined: just means merely, for instance, astonishment means shock, and gut-punched means to be punched in the stomach. But words, I’ve come to realize, carry more than mere definitional force.

Marilynne Robinson’s narrator in Gilead (the Rev. Ames) points out the grandeur of the simple word just. Reflecting on a description he just wrote, Ames says this:

I am thinking about the word ‘just.’ I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed—when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity and lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree.

And as with the effect of the word just—an effect that reaches beyond the word’s explicit definition—the sounds and cadences of our writing and speech affect the way it is perceived. I texted a friend this morning, for example, about the word “astonishment,” which—as I understand it—itself sounds astonished. The effect comes from the abrupt t sounds (which mirrors the shock of astonishment) and the gentle sh following it (which recalls the silence provoked by sudden wonder).

Similarly, the visceral word gut-punched reinforces its own meaning. The hard g, p, and d—along with the repeated accent of the word itself—gives a feeling of abruptness and strength. Gut-punched hits the reader hard—much like an actual punch in the gut. The sounds of our language contribute to their meaning.

3. Immensity Is Omnipresent

“I am the wisest man alive,” Socrates is quoted as saying (in a rephrased quote from Plato’s Apology), “for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

At the end of a college degree, I am forced, perhaps more than ever, to face the immensity of what I don’t yet know. Five years of studying has introduced me to a wide array of books, scholars, and research topics, yet—in every book, class, and reading—there is a great measure of what I do not understand. In a sense, then, I am beginning to travel the path of every person alive: carrying the little I know and continuing to explore the world beyond.

If anything, then, four years of creative writing have taught me to see the world as large and mysterious—a mass of unknowns at which I can alternately study and marvel. I have learned so that I can learn, and—though I might exit formal schooling for a time—I am still, with all the world, a student.

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4 Comments

  • Avatar
    J.C. Joranco
    April 29, 2024, 5:11 pm

    Fantastic article, I had the same issue with "just", it had definitely become a crutch word that I relied on unconsciously for far too long!

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  • Avatar
    Alex
    May 1, 2024, 7:49 am

    This article reads like it was written by someone who ‘just’ graduated with a creative writing degree! 🤣

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    • Avatar
      Dan Sullivan@Alex
      May 7, 2024, 10:34 pm

      I don’t think that’s fair. I graduated from college more than fifty years ago, spent most of the interim making a good living by writing, and still wish I could write a crisp, succinct essay like this one. Good for you, kid!

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  • Avatar
    Scott
    May 13, 2024, 5:42 am

    Dear Aletheia,

    Thank you for your post. With your (or Socrates’s) thoughts (about knowing nothing), I do agree and am in accord. Or as I could say in French: “D’accord.”

    All the best, Scott

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