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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
Phone:240-895-4795
Anne Arundel 100

Writing Creatively: It's Not All Rituals and Black Coffee

by Jeffrey Hammond, Professor of English and the

George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts

Reeves Chair Jeffrey Hammond

Students often ask me about my writing routine. Do I work at a certain time of day? Do I compose at the computer? Does a particular food or drink help? Although these are fair and answerable questions (late at night, at the computer, black coffee), creativity is not reducible to the rituals we perform to induce it. If such rituals were foolproof, I wouldn't have dozens of abandoned drafts filling up my hard drive. These pieces were written late at night on a computer between sips of black coffee, but they tanked anyway.

The creative process is mysterious. Not only is it different for everyone, but it defies generalization. Creative writing teachers, for instance, tell students to "write what you know" - sound advice, because writing that doesn't reflect real experience will ring false. But creativity is also about discovering what we don't know, at least not yet. Writing only what we know robs us of discoveries along the way, those sudden recognitions that can take writing to a higher level.

Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney made it sound so easy: just "look in thy heart and write." But the heart cannot be divorced from the head, and creativity is not the opposite of rationality. The creative process involves the whole person: it fuses thinking and feeling until the two become virtually indistinguishable.

The creative act is riddled with such paradoxes. For one thing, it is both intensely personal and oddly impersonal. Although creative people follow inner impulses, they often attest to a strange feeling of selflessness during episodes of extraordinary productivity. When my writing is going well, I almost forget who and where I am.

Another paradox is that creativity is both private and public. Writers usually work in solitude, but we're not really alone because we're working in the inescapably social medium of language. The instant we use words, even when we're only thinking them, we've entered the realm of other people. As therapists know, expressing ourselves in writing can create a sense of being heard, even if our words won't be read by anyone else.

Most writers, of course, don't want to be alone. For better or worse, we write to connect with others - and this impulse transforms therapeutic writing into truly creative writing. The challenge of reaching readers without sacrificing personal authenticity forces writers to be both arrogant and humble. Like any other art, writing demands a strong ego: after all, the presumption that others might enjoy our work borders on narcissism. And yet, good art is never created solely, or even chiefly, as an assertion of ego. If the narcissism inherent in the creative act is not checked by something else, the results will be self-indulgent, gimmicky, or just plain bad.

In creative writing, two factors provide this check. The first is the recognition that working with language creates an obligation not just to readers, but to the external reality that words represent. Although the artistic impulse comes from within, art responds to things that lie beyond the self. Appealing to these external stimuli - sights, smells, sounds, and textures - allows readers to experience what's going on in a piece, rather than merely being told what's going on. It is this difficult negotiation with external reality, and not the abstract musings of an isolated self, that makes possible a connection with other people. By now I've altered Sir Philip's advice almost beyond recognition: "Look in thy heart and head, but also look outside of yourself - and then write."

The second check on narcissism is a commitment to craft. Creativity is a process, but one that leads toward an artistic product constructed from the materials of a particular medium. In the writer's case, that medium is language. Many people assume that being a writer demands a particular temperament, deep thoughts, or unusual sensitivity, but the truth is less grand than that. A writer is a person who is fascinated by the endless possibilities of words and sentences. Everyone has thoughts and feelings worth writing about: a writer feels compelled to embody those thoughts and feelings in the concrete medium of shaped language.

The fact that we work with language also forces writers to get out of our own skins. Literary theorists tell us that readers unconsciously "re-write" texts in accordance with their own presumptions and desires. For our part, writers constantly "read" ourselves as we work, framing our words in accordance with the responses of imagined readers. The interconnectedness of producing and receiving language explains why good writers are always avid readers - and of all kinds of texts. How does Shakespeare make Polonius's advice seem both wise and foolish? How does Milton solve the linguistic problem of showing bodiless angels getting wounded in battle? How does Edith Wharton use the description of a parlor to convey the atmospherics of social class? Questions like these will matter to writers, because seeing how others have handled language is fundamental to learning the craft. This is why people who want to write but don't like to read always write badly: they have little interest in the very medium that they're trying to use.

Another mantra of creative writing classes is to "take risks" - advice that's always good, so long as the risks are genuine. The biggest risk, of course, is the vulnerability that comes with putting one's work out there for judgment. This terrifying prospect makes it tempting to hide behind an idealized persona - to write in a voice that reflects how we wish to be seen rather than who we really are. But whenever we try to come across as sensitive, profound, or hip, the result is a cheesy imitation of sensitivity, profundity, or hipness - and attentive readers will see right through it. In fact, trying too hard to appear creative might be the single worst obstacle to actually being creative.

Creativity in writing demands honest self-revelation, warts and all. In my case, this means not trying to sound like a thin young person with a full head of hair. For any writer, it means not pretending to have all the answers. To write as if human experience can be reduced to easy judgments and dogmatic pronouncements is to write falsely. It's more risky, but also more honest, to embrace life's ambiguities than to reduce them to artificial certitudes.

Such humility provides a valuable corrective to an unhelpful stance that artists of all kinds sometimes adopt: hogging the "creative" label as if other people doing other things are somehow "uncreative." Artists and writers enhance our creativity when we recognize that we do not have a monopoly on it: creativity can also energize the lab, the classroom, the office, the home, and a thousand other places. This recognition keeps us from writing or painting ourselves into self-indulgent corners. It also keeps us engaged with the external reality that feeds all art.

Nothing can come from nothing: the real world is stocked with real things for which written words are paradoxical shadows, marks on a page that both reveal and conceal whatever we're trying to say. The struggle to infuse these verbal shadows with as much substance as possible is what creative writing is all about. To write creatively is to embrace this struggle with open eyes - to be as wily as serpents and as innocent as doves in pursuit of a craft that both elevates and defeats us, time after time. When it comes to creative writing, this messy mix of success and failure is probably the biggest paradox of all.