The Not-so-Creative Type


I often say that I can’t do creative writing. One of my professors always replies that all writing is creative.

It’s this game we play.

Not a very fun game, I admit, but I’m sure I have friends who could turn it into a drinking game. 

I need a fourth class to tack onto my schedule for the fall, my last semester before I graduate. I’m contemplating taking a creative writing class to see if it helps develop my style. I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that all writing is creative, and believe the class might help get my creative juices (if they exist) flowing. 

Before I became an English major I was actually in math and science. I didn’t leave my program because it was too hard or it didn’t suit me, but because I found I was slightly more passionate about literature. When thinking about my work as an English major and the idea that my writing might be creative, I believe I approach writing similarly to how I approached chemistry and calculus. 

The heart of our language is grammar, and what is grammar if not a sort of formula for calculating meaning? Each individual sentence is a formula with constants (a subject and a verb) and with any number of variables that can be substituted in depending on the context. For me, papers have a comparable formulaic structure. Any piece of academic writing, from a short essay to a book, has a similar structure: Intro, conclusion, supporting paragraphs. These parts also have their own structure. Introductions are supposed to be a funnel beginning with broad concepts and ideas and slowly circling down to a specific idea or argument, the thesis. Body paragraphs then begin with their own mini-thesis that states the purpose of the paragraph. Evidence follows to support that mini-point, and then a transition sentence allows the paragraph to flow to the next point until the argument has been made and a conclusion can be drawn. The conclusion then almost reverses the introduction. Conclusions generally start with some sort of statement saying the contents of the paper prove the thesis. It then goes on to connect the thesis to broader implications. 

That is the formula. Fill in the parts with your variables, and you have a paper.

That isn’t creative at all, it’s mathematic! 

But what if it is creative? So the paper, and even the language, has a formulaic structure. Does that mean that formula can’t be broken? Creative writers often break grammatic rules on purpose in order to manipulate meaning or create a specific image, character, or mood. Maybe that means language is more malleable than I give it credit for. 

On the other hand, all of my writing is academic, and breaking the rules of grammar is not as accepted for academics as it is in creative writing.

I think the answer may reside in content. I said I approach all of my papers in a similar manner, but this does not mean that my papers all look the same. From an analysis of a new language style guide, to a research thesis on the concerns emancipated slaves expressed about the world after the civil war, to a look at the way our obsession with zombie media and other post-apocalyptic stories reflects the concerns of our society, my papers differ radically. Perhaps the creativity is in choosing the subject. When given a final paper prompt in my Fairy Tale Literature course, I could have talked about anything from Perrault’s “Little Red Riding-hood” to Harry Potter to shows like “Grimm,” or “Once Upon a Time,” and my thesis could have been anything from cannibalism, to plant symbolism, to potions as alchemy. My paper ended up analyzing instances of blood in some of the oldest fairy tales, showing how they roughly correlate to female life cycles, and proving that these blood symbols contribute to female stereotype and objectification.

That was my idea, my concept, my application and analysis. It was something I noticed as we read the tales, and something that I chose to research and look into. Maybe that is creative, and maybe I won’t fail that creative writing class as badly as I anticipated. 

What do you think, is all writing creative?

A “Tense” Situation


Joel Martin’s essay on Southern representations of Native Americans is typical for historical scholarship. The research is thorough and well-documented. The analysis is succinct and insightful. The finer points of grammar, however, are often lower on the to-do list than if he were writing for publication, say, with the MLA. The issue I found in Martin’s essay is one that often occurs in academic writing, especially in historical writing. “Eighteenth-century representations had centered on border-crossing types, individuals who moved freely between Indian and non-Indian cultures.” In this sentence, Martin uses the past perfect tense.

The definition of the past perfect tense from the Purdue OWL is that “the past perfect tense designates action in the past just as simple past does, but the action of the past perfect is action completed in the past before another action.”

 In this particular argument, he is not stating that the representation occurred until some other event. He explains only that the “border-crosser” was an eighteenth-century representation. The correct tense is simple past, and the sentence would have read “Eighteenth-century representations centered on border-crossing types…”

                Many readers may never notice the error; it is a minor one. However, due to our study of these tenses, and my additional study of them for foreign language classes, I was momentarily confused by the above section of Martin’s essay because I expected him to argue an event that changed the “border-crossing” representation. I had to re-read the section to be sure I had not misunderstood or somehow skipped over the information. Mixing verb tenses can confuse a reader, and distract from a paper’s argument.