What’s “creative” about creative writing?

Cristina Archetti wrote the short story ‘Distances’ in the LS13 anthology. Here, she controversially argues that there is nothing creative about creative writing.

Many dream about writing but never get round to realising their potential. Others force themselves to abort the thought of writing before it is even fully formulated on the ground because ‘they do not have enough imagination’. The very idea of engaging with the “creative” aspect of writing is intimidating, even terrifying.

Cristina Archetti reading 'Distances' at the LS13 launch in June 2013. Photo by Steve Evans

Cristina Archetti reading ‘Distances’ at the LS13 launch in June 2013.
Photo by Steve Evans

Having experience of both academic and (most recently) creative writing, I would like to demystify the “art” of the written word. I do not intend to disrespect creative writers, let’s be clear. And granted, perhaps to be a Nobel Prize winner you might need to have some special gift. But I am convinced that most of us can produce quality writing that others will enjoy reading without any extraordinary talent. My argument, in fact, is that there is nothing creative about creative writing. This is a helpful frame of mind to get started. And here is, briefly, why.

To begin with, in popular wisdom, academic and creative writing are regarded as opposites: the former dry, stiff and detached, based on the facts; the latter spontaneous and free, a playful expression of art rather than an analytical result of science. The further I venture into “creative” writing territory, however, the more strongly I realize that this distinction is a myth. Successful academics are ultimately those who are able to present the results of their research in a way that captures the audience’s (and future project funders’!) attention and imagination. Conversely, in writing a story, a “creative” writer embarks on a demonstration task: selecting and strategically placing in the narrative those details that in the eyes of the readers will make characters, settings and dialogues absolutely believable.

Creative writing, counterintuitively, is not at all about unrestrained imagination, but structuring. In this respect a good piece of prose is like a car—I know, not the most inventive example but, you see, I am a beginner. The frame and engine of the car are the structure, the body work the writing style. One can boast a Lamborghini writing style, but without an engine, the story is not going anywhere. In this respect it is better to have a Skoda writing style—we all have to start from somewhere—but a solid structure. Now we are in for a ride.

Writing, in my experience, does not depend on communing with the creative spirit of the universe or inspiration. It is a working activity that grows out of organization and some degree of discipline, just like any other job. If I had to describe my writing routine (I need to juggle writing time with teaching and the administration of my courses), it could be summarized in GYAOTC—Get Your Ass On That Chair (from 6.00am for me, but that’s optional). Not having the time to indulge in hesitation, in my case, is a blessing: I sit in front of the page, set the destination, and off I must go. Sometimes even “jfhdjghfkjghfkgbjbn” under the title of a section serves the purpose of breaking the path on the expanse of white screen ahead.

There’s more: when you are a professional, “writer’s block” cannot exist. Have you ever heard of a cyclist with a “cycling block,” a plumber with a “plumbing block” or a baker with a “baking block”? Exactly. So why should writers—of any kind—have the privilege of hiding behind imaginary illnesses? Let’s be honest and call it, like anyone else, “being lazy” or “being insecure.” These are manageable issues, by the way.

If you need elaborate rituals to start writing and to keep yourself motivated, perhaps you are in the wrong line of work after all. But if you are genuinely burning to tell a story, don’t let the mystique of writing deter you. Forget “creative” and just get on with it.

Cristina Archetti follows her questions wherever they might lead. She is a guerrilla researcher, a qualified boxing instructor, a failed knitter, and accidental creative writer. To her employer, the University of Salford, she is a Senior Lecturer in Politics & Media. She is interested in terrorism, war, journalism, the impact of communication technologies on politics and society. Currently, she is working on how to use creative writing to disseminate academic research. Find out more about her here: Academia.Edu

You can buy the LS13 anthology from Amazon, and get your *free* tickets for the LS13 event at Waterstones Leeds on Tuesday 8th October.

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