Almost everyone has at least a streak of creativity in them. It appears differently, of course, and it can be seen in the sciences as well as the arts, in bodily as well as intellectual pursuits, in the culinary and the constructive as much as the written or designed. All creative forms have literature associated with them, from scientific tracts to cookbooks, from coaching manuals to design guides. In so far as all these forms of writing are associated with creativity, they could all be defined as ‘creative writing’.
So what has caused the term to be particularly associated with poetry and fiction? Perhaps mostly because, uniquely amongst body of knowledge types of creativity, creative writing is associated very personally with the writer of it. It is the writer’s creation, inextricably associated with the writer’s individuality.
It is not, of course, necessarily original. Leftovers from school essays and college courses, family memories, sights or sounds connected with ambitions realised or otherwise, can all be jump off points. But, familiar as some of the subject matter may be, no two people will treat it in precisely the same way. Neither does it naturally follow that it should be intended for any other eyes but the writer’s. People write for all sorts of reasons; the cathartic diary, expressing the hopes and frustrations which the diarist doesn’t choose to share with the rest of the world; the simple escapism of the writer’s own self-expression, or the correspondence within relationships. All are legitimate uses of ‘creative writing’ which have been in existence for centuries and will probably remain so for as long as our species survives.
However, this guide is intended to be for writers who are aiming to have their writing read, and as soon as that aspiration is understood, the writing finds itself being offered up for judgements and opinions. The potential hazards of being assessed, as most of us know well enough, are as immediately obvious as the rewards. The writer can be admired and feted, or rejected and dismissed. An author can be as much a target or a victim as a success story. So why do so many people choose to take the risk?
Well, firstly, as a pastime, creative writing has some very practical points in its favour. It only needs very basic equipment; it doesn’t need membership of clubs or societies, nor are expensive courses compulsory. Youth and fitness are not prerequisites either. It’s not a pastime where the practitioner is reliant on anyone else simply to be able to do it. And there is always that dazzling prospect, however tenuous, however lottery winning-like, that an idea will break through into the big time, bringing distinction and wealth with it. More about that later – see ‘making money’. If the quest is for no more than an activity which will keep the mind active without the pressures of examination courses, writing is suitable enough.
Secondly, creative writing can meet needs which other forms of activity cannot. Studying and entering for competitive examinations tend to have obvious instrumental aims – career demands, promotion qualifications, boosting employment prospects. Participating in sport is about physical benefits and the visible accolades which success can bring. But for those who do not find it easy to express themselves in sometimes restrictive or inhibiting work environments, or who have issues from their past and thoughts about their present that they wish to work through, writing is a whole world of opportunity.
Thirdly, creative writing can offer the chance for people to define their identities and their place in the community. It can also bring about change in a more effective way than any amount of demonstration, noise or political posturing. The increasing demand for social change in the nineteenth century is connected to many influences, but one of the main progressive forces was the fiction of Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell and others. Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of the labour camps of the Soviet Union exposed the outrages of the regime, and there are innumerable other examples of places and times when oppression has been thrown into sharp relief by fiction and poetry, in days when the universal media access of the internet and communication technology was not available. In many parts of the world, it still isn’t, or the offered opportunities are fewer and available only to minorities.
Finally, creative writing is, almost by definition, associated with reading – see ‘The need to read’ and ‘Subject matter’. As soon as the two begin to relate to each other, a whole world of unlimited scope and imagination is opened up which can lift even the most persecuted and unhappy people out of their difficult daily circumstances to a place of refuge and self-discovery. There is no shortage of good reasons why people want to write creatively, and if the only audience they require is themselves, experimentation and learning are not as necessary. For all the rest of us, we need readers and we need to find ways of engaging them, and that is one of the main concerns of the next section.