This post originally appeared on February 21, 2014.
A while ago, a Joss Whedon quote was being passed around the Internet. He’d been telling an audience about his frustration with repeatedly being asked, “Why do you write these strong woman characters?” His response (now immortalized in a million Facebook posts): “Because you’re still asking me that question.”
There’s another frustrating question that’s made the rounds both in and out of academia for some time: “Why teach or study literature?” And its sister question: “Why teach or study creative writing?” In other words, what’s the point of a subject that doesn’t automatically provide its students with a clear, established path to financial security or career? We like answers to our problems: the next step in one’s career trajectory is X. The best school district in the area is Y. In order to heal the sore throat, take A, gargle B, drink C. It’s uncomfortable not having answers, and no one likes being uncomfortable.
So the key difficulty here—the key reason, I think, that the question gets asked—is that the point of studying creative writing isn’t to generate answers. It’s to generate questions. It’s to work continually to understand that the world is not a set of dichotomies—that most situations, to be understood fully, require a willingness to see nuance. To be a good writer, you must be willing to be uncomfortable, to empathize with both protagonist and antagonist, to write the poem that acknowledges the messy side of an experience.
Creative writing classes center around questions. Why might this author have used this point of view? What does this detail reveal about this character’s desire? What connotations are packed into this word? What does this syntax suggest about this speaker? What is he trying to prove? Why a train ride instead of a road trip? Why an elm instead of a pine? With whom do you sympathize? Why?
Asking these questions, we continually strengthen and deepen our craft. And these skills are transferable: if you can effectively structure a poem, then you can probably effectively structure a presentation, a work email, a letter to shareholders. But more importantly, if you can effectively structure a poem, then you have effectively structured a poem.
There are other benefits to studying creative writing, though, that transcend the classroom and the workspace and even the page. The study of creative writing is also the study of human nature—both others’ and our own. If you’re asking questions of your characters, your word choice, your writerly allegiances, then you’re probably also asking those questions of the world around you. Why might my mother have said this? Do I truly believe all people who are X are also Y? Can I champion this one ideal and simultaneously reject this one? What does this detail reveal about my desire? With whom do I sympathize? Why?
So why study creative writing? Because we need more people who understand that the world is made up of shadings and gradations, complex characters, and mysteries. Because we need more poems and stories and essays and novels and plays to guide us through those mysteries. Because someone out there is still asking that question. And anyone asking that question probably isn’t asking enough other ones.