Thursday, November 06, 2008

Creativity: No Flowers Required

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “creative writing”? Do you restrict it to a specific genre, such as fiction? Do you have uncomfortable flashbacks to miserable days spent in high school English class reading short stories that mystified and bored you? Does it mean ornate descriptions and a profusion of fancy and inventive phrasing? I’m pleased to tell you that good creative writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, shares the same characteristics as all other good writing. Good writing doesn’t draw attention to itself. It tells a story.

For instance, what do you think of Ernest Hemingway? Was he a creative writer? Undoubtedly. Read the opening to his short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the café knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too dunk he would leave without paying, so they kept a watch on him.

Read Hemingway’s paragraph closely and pay attention to all the adjectives. See if you can find an adverb. And how about all those run-on sentences and the lack of any commas after introductory phrases? So much for those red felt-tipped comments from your English teacher.

But this is fiction, of course, and many people want to tell a non-fiction tale. Can non-fiction still be creative? Absolutely. I’ll give you three examples, all of them the opening paragraphs of the non-fiction book cited.

A hermit crab lives in my house. Here in the desert he’s hiding out from local animal ordinances, at minimum, and maybe even the international laws of native-species transport. For sure, he’s an outlaw against nature. So be it.
--Barbara Kingsolver, in
High Tide in Tucson, her book of essays

Not long after I moved with my family to a small town in New Hampshire I happened upon a path that vanished into a wood on the edge of town.
--Bill Bryson, in
A Walk in the Woods, his story about hiking the Appalachian Trail

Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet. I understood on some dim, detached level that the sweep of earth beneath my feet was a spectacular sight. I’d been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care.
--Jon Krakauer, in
Into Thin Air, his account of the tragic events on Mt. Everest in 1996

These examples should reassure writers that creativity doesn’t solely live in fiction or fanciful language. From Bryson’s simple one-sentence paragraph to Krakauer’s detailed description of the amazing view atop Everest, the creativity is apparent. The subject matter, the pacing, and the clean flow of language draws us into non-fiction just as it does to fiction.

Notice the grammatical sins that our English teachers would have dinged us for. Run-on sentences. A sentence fragment. A paragraph of only one sentence. Do these “errors” distract from the work? Not at all; just the opposite.

While some writers groan at the thought of ladling fancy words over their work, some are disappointed that their flowery phrasing, their “darlings,” must go. Remember, “creative” means inventive and imaginative, not dense, fictitious, or complicated.
Photo courtesy of Sanja Gjenero at


Merina said...

Thanks...I needed that! :-)


Ritergal said...

What a tantalizingly creative essay!

TH Meeks said...

Thank you for the kind comments!