Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Therapy For The Disaffected Masses (2023)

Yes, of course, creative writing can be taught, and it is very successfully taught. It might be the most successful humanities enterprise in the American university, if success is to be measured by stated goals. As for "improvement," yes to that too, if by "improvement" we mean internalizing the principles of creative writing. Dramatic and measurable improvement are not only possible but happen all the time.

Now, having gotten the provocative answer out of the way, let me be clear. Creative writing is not literary writing as has been understood for all of the history of writing. Creative writing is a subset of therapy, with the same essential modalities -- except, like everything else in our culture, it comes in a stripped, dumbed down version that partakes little of the rigors of psychotherapy. More appropriately, we might call it the Oprahfied mindset that penetrates workshop. Life lessons and living a more authentic life are always just beneath the surface of any workshop discussion.

Students "improve" in the direction of imitating their teacher and the narrow range of models -- Carver? Hemingway? Barthelme? Plath? Glück? Levine? -- she brings into workshop. Students "improve" in the output produced, compared to the beginning of workshop or the graduate program, when they start reproducing stuff that looks like the models.


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Literature as we have known it through history springs from genius -- that most politically incorrect of words. By definition, no creative writing teacher can give official sanction to this terminology. And so the literary criticism of Horace or Sidney or Coleridge or Eliot is out the door. All of literary criticism is banished. Creative writing can flourish only in this enormous vacuum. Creative writing is taught with this single most important premise: no criticism, as the word is traditionally understood, can be allowed into the workshop.

In workshop, members judge each other's work according to feeling or desire. Technique is also a big part of it -- judging the story or poem according to how it works, how the plot and characters and narrative are put together to achieve a desired effect, or how a poem's rhythm and line breaks and diction serve a unified emotional purpose -- in other words "craft."

Craft is a very revealing term, as though writing were a matter of figuring out the essential components of a story or poem (the novel is typically not taught in workshop, because it's too hard a nut for craft to crack), and duplicating those elements in the comfort of your home. In that sense, creative writing can absolutely be taught. It's just that it's not literature.

Literature is about having, first of all, a broad humanist understanding of the tradition, how vastly oppositional styles of writing have sought to grapple with the same human problems over time, how history and politics have shaped national literatures, how you can not necessarily learn--for that is too reductionist a term--but be challenged by great writers like Chekhov or Tolstoy or Kafka, to create something utterly unique to yourself.


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Literature is not about expressing yourself -- that all-important desideratum of sincerity, so precious in the workshop -- but about penetrating, at the deep intuitive level, what other fiction writers or poets have done in the past, as they confronted aesthetic challenges in their own milieus, and realizing what your specific aesthetic challenges are, both in collective and individual terms, and then going about it, alone and without comfort, in resolving the challenge you have set for yourself.

None of that can ever be taught in workshop, whose whole psychology militates against such an individualist, rather than industrialized, method of learning.

The psychology of the workshop has not yet been thoroughly explored. It is a mild form of hazing, an officially sanctioned sadism in which students eagerly participate. The student sits quietly while his work is read in front of him, not allowed to intervene as peers shred his work or occasionally praise it. All kinds of political, gender, class, and racial subtexts pervade such peer-to-peer "critique." Those criticizing are as ignorant of the art of writing as those whose work is being discussed. They're picking up cues from the instructor as to what is acceptable or not acceptable.

The methods of the workshop lead to "improvement" by subtraction -- since by definition the instructor can't compel the student to produce something that's not within his capability. So you work with what the student has given you, and you make that inherently flawed piece of work look a little better -- make it conform to the Carver or Glück model -- by subtracting, taking away the really egregious flourishes that make the writer appear eminently stupid.

It's not a coincidence that minimalism became so popular in the seventies, or that Carver or the domestic confessionalists became such huge national influences in the eighties; this is the period when the workshop model was getting established. All workshop writing leads to a type of minimalism, even if not strictly in the stylistic sense. For example, everything to do with politics or class must be expunged, since in the politically correct academy (as on Oprah) such subjects cannot be raised without the false consensus, the feel-good atmosphere, falling apart.


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What can we agree on, and therefore teach? That you--at twenty-one or twenty-nine--have had some personal experiences: your parents divorced or you had a bad time in high school or your sister had a terrible sickness. You can make a story out of that--or creative nonfiction, that's okay too. Or a short narrative/epiphanic poem. As long as it conforms to the elements of "craft" you're being asked to upheld.

We might make the case that creative writing is what composition ought to be, in allowing idiosyncratic expression. Creative writing also functions in opposition to the rhetorics of literary theory, where everything is politicized (though in an insanely misguided manner, focused only on language) and the author as independent idea and will do not exist.

The remarkable thing--but it shouldn't be so, in our age of conformity--is how malleable, how teachable, students tend to be. All their lives long they've learned to play by the rules of socialization, and creative writing workshop is just taking the social game to a different level, where your experience is validated (but not really, because you must follow the model) and you're given the appearance of having your hands held and being consoled (even as your work is being ripped up, it's couched in the language of therapy).

It's perhaps also a refuge from self-help (which is where memoir flourishes), as you're told that we're all here to help each other. No wonder creative writing is the most popular scene on campus. Show don't tell, find your own voice, write what you know, sure, you can do that while carrying on a hectic social life and not even feel guilty you're wasting time. Come to think of it, Louise Glück, that Pulitzer winner, doesn't look all that different from what you've been doing. You just need to get the technique down a little better. Maybe in the next poem about your dog that got lost.

Yes, creative writing can be taught. And we're all fucked because of it.

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This piece appears in the current issue of Boulevard magazine.



Can creative writing really be taught? ›

Yes, of course, creative writing can be taught, and it is very successfully taught. It might be the most successful humanities enterprise in the American university, if success is to be measured by stated goals.

What is creative writing in mass media? ›

A working knowledge of the art and craft of writing for screen, stage, television and all forms of creative media. Knowledge of and respect for the value of creative collaboration achieved through working in a cohort and active participation in an online learning experience.

Is creative writing good for your brain? ›

Writing is good for keeping one's gray matter sharp and may even influence how we think, as in “more positively,” studies show. Apparently sequential hand movements, like those used in handwriting, activate large regions of the brain responsible for thinking, language, healing and working memory.

How do you teach creative writing? ›

One way to teach and promote creative writing is to do an informal publication of your students' stories. This way, your students will not only be able to be proud that their work is printed for others to read, but they'll be able to read each others' work and get ideas for their own future stories.

Why should creative writing be taught? ›

Anyone who engages in creative writing, no matter the genre or style, helps us explore the human experience, share new ideas, and advocate for a better society. Whether you write your stories for yourself or share them with a wide audience, creative writing makes the world a better place.

What are the 4 forms of creative writing? ›

The four forms of creative writing are fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and scriptwriting which is sometimes called screenwriting or play writing. Creative nonfiction can take several forms such as memoir and personal essay.

What are the seven process of creative writing? ›

The 7 stages of the EEF's writing process: Planning, Drafting, Sharing, Evaluating, Revising, Editing and Publishing.

What are examples of creative writing? ›

Here are some instances of creative writing:
  • Novel writing.
  • Short stories.
  • Flash fiction.
  • Poetry.
  • Song lyrics.
  • Plays.
  • TV or film scripts.
  • Memoirs.

Does creative writing help memory? ›

Researchers say that the unique, complex, spatial and tactile information associated with writing by hand on physical paper is likely what leads to improved memory.

How does creative writing relieve stress? ›

Creativity reduces anxiety, depression, and stress… And it can also help you process trauma. Studies have found that writing helps people manage their negative emotions in a productive way, and painting or drawing helps people express trauma or experiences that they find too difficult to put in to words.

What part of the brain controls creative writing? ›

Frontal cortex—the frontal cortex has long been thought of as the hub or center of creativity, as it seems to be responsible for many of the functions that contribute to creative thinking (such as working (or short-term) memory).

Why do students struggle with creative writing? ›

They are slow and inefficient in retrieving the right word(s) to express an idea. They struggle to develop their ideas fluently (poor ideation). They struggle to keep track of their thoughts while also getting them down on paper. They feel that the process of writing on paper is slow and tedious.

What makes a good creative writing teacher? ›

As a creative writing teacher, your job is to create lessons to teach students how to write fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. As part of this, you may guide them through the creative process, help them understand the techniques of expressive writing, and provide personalized evaluation and feedback.

What are good topics for creative writing? ›

Creative Writing
  • A cozy spot at home.
  • A dark hallway.
  • A story about a holiday.
  • A trip on a rocket ship.
  • A walk in the woods.
  • Dear George Washington.
  • Donuts for dinner.
  • Funny things my pet has done.

What are 5 important benefits of creative writing? ›

5 Ways a Creative Writing Course Will Benefit Your Future
  • Imagination. Creative writing boosts your imagination as you create new worlds, situations and characters in your work. ...
  • Empathy. ...
  • Better Thought Clarification. ...
  • Broader Vocabulary. ...
  • Critical Review.

Is writing good therapy? ›

By helping people manage and learn from negative experiences, writing strengthens their immune systems as well as their minds. Comment: Writing is no stranger to therapy. For years, practitioners have used logs, questionnaires, journals and other writing forms to help people heal from stresses and traumas.

What is the value of creative writing? ›

Creative writing (1) dispels the awe of literature and creates active learners; (2) develops critical readers; (3) furthers student under-standing of literary criticism; (4) inspires deeper commitment to excellence; and (5) motivates class bonding and dismantles the classroom hierarchy.

What is the most popular form of creative writing? ›

Storytelling: Storytelling is the most popular form of creative writing and is found in the realms of both fiction and nonfiction writing. Popular forms of fiction include flash fiction, short stories, novellas, and full-length novels; and there are tons of genres to choose from.

What are the 5 writing skills? ›

The five writing styles are as discussed below:
  • Descriptive Writing. This type of writing describes characters, events, and places in a way that helps readers clearly visualize a particular scene. ...
  • Expository Writing. ...
  • Persuasive Writing. ...
  • Narrative Writing. ...
  • Creative Writing.
Dec 26, 2019

What are the three genres of creative writing? ›

Three Genres gives students a basic introduction to fiction/ literary nonfiction, poetry, and drama and helps them to develop their creative skills in each area.

What is Rule No 6 in creative writing? ›

Another way of saying this: Chase your character up a tree, and then throw rocks at him. Think for a moment of the horrible situations through which your favorite characters suffer.

What is the most important stage of the writing process? ›

The writing process consists of different stages: prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing. Prewriting is the most important of these steps. Prewriting is the "generating ideas" part of the writing process when the student works to determine the topic and the position or point-of-view for a target audience.

What should come first reading or writing? ›

We thought so. Many people think that children first learn to read and then learn to write. Some even see writing as a completely separate skill. But research shows that reading and writing develop along a similar timeline in young children 1.

Which of the following is not a purpose of creative writing? ›

Hence, it could be concluded that repetition is not a purpose of creative writing.

What does writing do to the brain? ›

Writing by hand is also shown to increase memory and retention. The act of putting pen to paper activates areas of the brain that helps student increase their comprehension. It also involves more senses and motor neurons than when typing on a keyboard.

Is writing a story good for mental health? ›

The researchers suggest that writing may help improve mental clarity by allowing people to better process information and organize their thoughts. Additionally, writing can be a helpful way to express emotions and relieve stress, which may also contribute to improved mental clarity.

Does writing improve critical thinking? ›

Writing develops critical thinking skills

Writing improves the thinking process and contributes to the development of critical thinking skills because an individual has to clearly state ideas and lay out arguments in such a way as to cultivate higher order thinking.

Is Creative Writing good for anxiety? ›

There are numerous studies that highlight the benefits of writing when it comes to trauma, anxiety, and overall mental wellbeing – as it allows people to externalise their feelings, and see their experiences from a new perspective.

How does creativity help with anxiety? ›

Creative ventures help to fight anxiety because they activate the parts of your brain that process emotions. Music and art, for example, help to calm brain activity and allow the individual to feel a sense of emotional harmony.

Does writing help with anxiety? ›

Something as simple as writing can relieve stress, reduce anxiety, and help to ease feelings of depression.

Are writers left or right brained? ›

Almost every action connected with language—both spoken and written—is a function of the brain's left side. For example, writing is a typical left-brain trait for both left- and right-handed people.

What side of the brain is responsible for creative thinking? ›

The theory is that people are either left-brained or right-brained, meaning that one side of their brain is dominant. If you're mostly analytical and methodical in your thinking, the theory says that you're left-brained. If you tend to be more creative or artistic, you're right-brained.

How can I improve my brain creativity? ›

9 Ways to Rewire Your Brain for Creativity
  1. Mindful observation. ...
  2. Change your environment. ...
  3. Take a creative stroll. ...
  4. Recharge your curiosity. ...
  5. Try some blue sky thinking. ...
  6. Incorporate “design thinking” into your creative process. ...
  7. Practice creating. ...
  8. Take time to daydream.

How do you teach a struggling student to write? ›

6 Strategies to Help Students Who Struggle with Writing
  1. Strategy #1: Teach Prewriting. ...
  2. Strategy #2: Look for Opportunities to Write. ...
  3. Strategy #3: Read Their Writing Out Loud. ...
  4. Strategy #4: Find Topics that Interest Your Child. ...
  5. Strategy #5: Offer Constructive Feedback. ...
  6. Strategy #6: Revise and Rewrite by Hand.
Jan 31, 2018

What causes poor writing skills? ›

Writing difficulties occur because of poor command of English tenses and grammar, lack of inventive ideas, teachers' unproductive teaching methods, inadequate vocabulary, weak sentence structure, inexperienced teachers, inappropriate use of vocabulary and rhetorical convention.

How hard is creative writing? ›

Ultimately, the experience of taking a creative writing class is fantastic. It can absolutely be hard sometimes, especially when you're bearing your words before a large group. However, it's incredibly helpful to your development as a writer.

Can writing be learned? ›

The myth that writing is a skill that one is either "born with" or not is inherently false. Writing can be taught; more to the point, how to write effectively can be taught. One reason that many professionals don't write well is that they simply lack the necessary tools.

What is creative writing Can creative writing be taught explain? ›

Creative writing is any writing that goes outside the bounds of normal professional, journalistic, academic, or technical forms of literature, typically identified by an emphasis on narrative craft, character development, and the use of literary tropes or with various traditions of poetry and poetics.

How do I teach my child creative writing? ›

Here are some ways you can help your child develop their creative writing skills:
  1. Create a writing environment. ...
  2. Use writing prompts for practice. ...
  3. Encourage journal writing. ...
  4. Use visual images for prompts. ...
  5. Teach them about working in drafts. ...
  6. Encourage them to read. ...
  7. Emphasise character development before writing the story.
Jan 25, 2021

Does creative writing include poetry? ›

Creative writing, a form of artistic expression, draws on the imagination to convey meaning through the use of imagery, narrative, and drama. This is in contrast to analytic or pragmatic forms of writing. This genre includes poetry, fiction (novels, short stories), scripts, screenplays, and creative non-fiction.


1. Levan On Writing—The Range of Writing: Forms and Styles
(USC Levan Institute for the Humanities)
2. RETENTION NIGHTMARE; How to Keep Your 'A' team Intact, by Dr. Anuradha Khoda, PhD.
(Live Your Dream Enterprises Limited (LYDEL))
3. PsiAN Forum Live: Therapists on Social Media
(PsiAN: Psychotherapy Action Network)
4. Creativity and well-being in the curriculum (Dr Roshan Doug)
(University Centre Halesowen)
5. Conversations S1, E6: The Making of a Writer
6. Critique got you down? What to do with feedback on your writing.
(Maryrose Wood)
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