April 2009

JC Hallman


On "Creative Writing"


Emerson famously coined the phrase “creative writing,” and the passage in which it first appears is explored and explained in Robert D. Richardson’s First We Read, Then We Write, a modest new volume that culls practical writing advice from Emerson’s work and organizes it into a primer that is something like George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” But I’d like to suggest that the first use of “creative writing” is just as important for what it doesn’t say as what Richardson says it does. Why, unless there had appeared of late a kind of writing that was stale, staid, tedious, soulless, and artificial, would Emerson feel a need to distinguish “creative” writing from any other kind of writing? Emerson did not invent “creative writing,” but he did identify that moment when simply good writing became the fox upon which the hounds were gaining. “People do not deserve to have good writing, they are so pleased with bad,” he once wrote. Things already appeared grim. A century later, Orwell concluded that the same could be said of thinking itself. The fox now decorated a wall in some imaginary ministry.

But as Richardson’s title -- borrowed from Emerson, of course -- implies, good writing and good thinking begin with good reading. Emerson’s “creative writing” is only half the story, and the full quote (from “The American Scholar,” first delivered at Harvard in 1837) comes in a paragraph that is more about reading than writing: “There is then a creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold illusion.”

So what kind of reader was Emerson? As his foremost biographer (the essential Emerson: The Mind on Fire), Richardson should know. Voracious, is the short answer. Emerson had taken in Greek and Roman classics, the literature and scripture of just about all the world’s cultures, and everything from novels, poetry, and plays to biographies, travel books, and agricultural and government reports. As well, he stayed current with British and American magazines, and read “all the new books as they came out.” He was, according to Richardson, “in love with and addicted to books,” a man who was “an uncommitted and indiscriminate reader.”

In other words, he was the first bookslut.


When it came to writing, both Emerson and Orwell advised quarantine-like measures for familiar phrases and dead metaphors. Emerson listed taboo wordings in his journal -- “after all,” “as a general thing,” “quite a number” -- and Orwell ticked off clichés suitable for kindling: “hotbed,” “melting pot,” “acid test,” “veritable inferno.” So it’s a little disturbing to note that “creative writing” is the deadest metaphor of all.

It’s not particularly new or shocking to suggest that there’s something sensual in the relationship between reader and writer, but we’ve largely forgotten that the idea goes all the way back to Emerson’s Promethean sentence, which suggests not only that the reader and writer are promiscuous and messing around, but that there’s issue that results from the frolic. The reader and writer make something, create. But that’s not really the way “creative writing” gets used today. For the most part, it simply means fiction and poetry. Made up stuff. Created events. As a dead metaphor, “creative writing” is a desiccated zombie stumbling about, trying to keep up with a changing world and infect as many hapless souls as it can get its teeth into. The whole essential idea that the reader and writer are -- let’s just say it -- fucking, vanished. Standard Orwellian rhetorical inversion ensued. Hello, dystopia.

And that’s about where things stand when it comes to words. Emerson could sense it happening in his own work -- his letters, addressed to “anyone whom I love,” continued to excite him, while his “chapters” were “hard and cold,” and he did not wish to re-read them -- and he attacked the “shabby sentences” that characterized the thinking of the learned class of the day. But curiously, Emerson never wrote an essay on writing itself. However -- and this is what Richardson recognized -- he effectively wrote every good manual on writing that has come since. They all borrow from him. It’s a little creepy to line up the standard saws of writing texts with Emerson’s advice. Should prose be efficient? “All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word.” Do books have a single, hidden meaning? “A thousand readers in a thousand different years shall read [Dante’s] story and find it a picture of their story by making of course a new application of every word.” Should writers work from an outline? “You should start with no skeleton or plan. The natural one will grow as you work.” Where should writers seek the voice that makes the best prose? “And I say if you would learn to write, ‘tis in the street, in the street.”


Whoever has heard of creative painting? Or creative sculpting? Or the creative play of an instrument? Emerson’s plea for creative reading and writing -- no matter how tin our ears are to it now -- had nothing to do with writing stories or poems. We come closest to what he meant by it only when we attempt, clumsily and inconsistently, to distinguish good writing from bad. And what should we make of the fact that Orwell parrots much of Emerson’s advice, and that, years further on, frustrated “creative writers” continue to tussle with students who think (because they have been taught nonsense!) that books are written in a secret code, that the first step of a five paragraph essay is an outline, and that the place to learn to write is not the street but in the thesaurus?

The advice isn’t working. Maybe it’s because good writing can’t really be boiled down to one-liners from Emerson or the bullet points Orwell offers (even though the last of these advises ignoring the rest sooner than uttering a barbarity). But perhaps good writing can be addressed with metaphor. Richardson implicitly asks us to reconsider what Emerson meant by “creative writing.” Orwell insists that his own advice on good writing is not limited to the literary use of language, but ought to be applied whenever one wishes to use “language as an instrument for expressing and not concealing or preventing thought.” Emerson opts for a more cosmic metaphor for the same sentiment, which Richardson sees as his very best bit of advice: “The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when all your arrows are spent.”

Which suggests a kind of theory in conclusion -- and perhaps a hope. “Creative nonfiction” has of late emerged as the awkward phrase we chuck about to describe writing that is not stories, and not poems, but is still trying to be good. I think I mean “good” in both a moral and qualitative sense. And even though it clunks when you say it, “creative nonfiction” -- like, I hope, this brief note -- aspires to the condition of literature, aspires to the condition of “creative writing” as Emerson originally intended it. It’s no accident that Emerson is better remembered as the patron saint of the personal essay than as the poet he felt he was. The viral onslaught of creative nonfiction in recent years is a bit of light and movement in the bone yard of modern language. Is Emerson born anew, or is it just another stuttering zombie?


I don’t know if you can resurrect a metaphor, but Richardson tried.