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About creative writing

By Kit Davis
Posted: 07/24/2020

The writing I taught was what we call literary writing as opposed to entertainment. I defined the former as the attempt to create the illusion of the lives we live as they are, not as we would like them to be. I discouraged the writing of science fiction because of its temptation to preach, and that of fantasy because of its temptation to look inside our wishes and daydreams for our subject instead of outward at the world in front our eyes. If my student put a unicorn in her story, it had to have a digestive tract.

I began by saying that creative writing can be learned but cannot be taught. We learn how to do it by reading great art written in our own language and in a few fine translations; by doing it every day, barring those days we need the relief of entertainment; by reading that work as working writers--how did this man or woman do the astonishing trick of moving us to want to write something astonishing too--and by writing fiction every day, as nearly as practicable.

The teacher’s function is to assign the reading, to look at the student’s work, say how near it has approached or failed to approach to being literature, and to suggest new ways of reading and fresh ways of understanding experience.

I promised my students that every story I assigned was great art, no argument allowed.

Some provisional rules:

We learn what we mean to say by saying. We don’t decide beforehand what we mean by our story or novel or how we intend to construct it, anyway not all of what we mean and intend. If we know that, we are in danger both of formula-making and sermonizing. We let our story carry us to its own end, build its own building.

Writing fiction, I think like all art, is the process of finding out what we didn’t know we knew, and what we believe and didn’t know we believed.

What we call style in the art of writing is the voice that becomes our literary language as opposed to the one we use in our daily lives. It is learned by writing. Rarely, it is present almost from the beginning. More often, it takes years to develop.

If a writing teacher offers a formula for writing a successful story (read publishable), talks about beginnings, middles, ends, get out of that class and study something that is useful and demands discipline, a new language for example. A diagram assumes we know where we are going before we begin our journey, and then we are in the land of entertainment again.

Robert Frost to his writing students: "Tell me something I don’t know. Surprise me."

-Kit Davis-

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