This year on Moving Writers, I am dusting off some old-but-wise books on my shelf about writing, creating a tiny review, then considering how one passage from the book can inform writing instruction today, even decades after the book was first published.
September’s Book: The Creative Process by Carol Burke and Molly Best Tinsley.
Length: 185 pages
Copyright Year: 1992
A Tiny Review: A book I remember from my turn-of-the-century undergraduate years, the cover of The Creative Process features M. C. Escher’s lithograph “Drawing Hands,” a visual reminder that as the art impacts the artist, the writing impacts the writer. This image in itself can make an excellent writing prompt: “What does this drawing have to say about creativity?” The book is full of wise observations for creative writers of all levels, potent mentor texts, and specific exercises you or students can apply to all genres of writing, though the focus is on short fiction and poetry. It has a chapter on “Showing versus Telling,” “Choosing a Point of View,” and “Shaping” in a section about Developing Form.
One Wise Quote:
From Chapter 3, “Coming to Our Senses”
“Creative writing begins with dedicated sensory perception, a reverence for the inexhaustible stream of data about the physical world and other people that flows like an undercurrent through our conscious lives. Yet sensory perception is so primal and automatic, so available, that the beginning writer may dismiss it as a source of material. how could the clutter on my desk, one writer might ask–the rumpled papers, dull pencils, dry pens, unheeded stack of stick ‘em notes, stacked or splayed books, a plum and a wrapped muffin for lunch–how could any of this relate to the profound feeling or idea I am struggling to express? Caught up in the global affairs of the front page, the beginning writer may pass over the revealing, ongoing drama of the local news.
. . . When we rely on words like passion, despair, confusion, bliss, when we make judgments like unfair, stupid, irrational, excellent, we are actually naming abstract ideas. We are presenting conclusions about experiences, leaving our readers to guess about specific circumstances and grope for association to their own memories. In the absence of rich sensory data, our readers will never have to leave the safe, familiar world of their own assumptions and stereotypes; they will have their automatic or “knee-jerk” responses to our subject and then dismiss it. What an abstract pronouncement does is skip over the complex experience itself, offering readers nothing to see, hear, smell, touch or taste, nothing to feel or believe in.”
In Today’s Classroom:
The advice in this passage is timeless, and the skill it describes is one students in 2022 need to work on more than ever. In fact, I plan to read an excerpt from that second paragraph out loud verbatim to my class this week!
In the years since its publication, real sensory experiences have been increasingly supplanted by screen-based virtual realities for children and young adults. This can deprive the writers in front of us with the baseline pool of sensory experiences to pull from that students in 1993 may have had. What can we do about that?
The good news is that many of our students are involved in sports and after-school endeavors that use their bodies and engage their sense of touch. To help students begin working with imagery and the five senses (and define imagery as more than visual input), it might be wise to start with touch associated with an activity. Ballet class, football practice, a tennis tournament, or even hours spent gaming all have tactile experiences students can capture in words. Notebook writing about these experiences, already close to a student’s heart, can be worthwhile.
Additionally, my school is on a property that has trees and an adjacent field abuzz with the movement and sounds of insects this time of year. A tiny field trip to the edgelands of our school property to absorb some sensory data and try to get it in concrete, specific words in our notebooks rather than abstract adjectives is a timeless minilesson for the golden days of mid-September.
One passage that stands out to me both because of its truth and its need for an update is the closing metaphor in the first paragraph, where Burke and Tinsley encourage writers to consider the local news, not just the “global affairs” on the “front page.” I love the idea here, but few of my students have hands-on experience with physical newspapers for this metaphor to be meaningful.
Instead, I might try a series of quickwrites to illustrate the point:
- Describe your house in two minutes. Now describe your room in two minutes. Now describe your favorite nook in your room for two minutes. Notice how as the writing gets smaller, it gets more memorable, more impactful.
- Describe New York City, using this picture (using the skyline slide). Now describe New York City using these pictures (using the street picture). Which one feels more like you are in the city, a part of the action? Why?
Ultimately, imagery enriches any writing, not just creative writing. In the past, I’ve written about how imagery in poetry can help strengthen our imagery in essays.
This book, and this passage in particular gave me wise and welcoming texts to return to. I would recommend adding this book to your library in spite of its age, as the advice for writers survives the test of time quite well. You can order a preowned copy here, if you’re interested.
I teach ninth-grade students in Pennsylvania. My book, Poetry Pauses, is due out from Corwin Press in March. You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.
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