Creative Writing (part 1): It isn’t english literature and it isn’t journalism, so stop saying that

Let’s get this straight: I didn’t major in journalism or english literature. I hold a degree in creative writing.

Some people don’t realize such a major exists. Sometimes friends forget I even have a degree because I didn’t attend my graduation ceremony and never threw a graduation party. Sometimes well-meaning individuals use these other fields as synonyms when they refer to my field of study. They aren’t synonyms, so stop that. Right now!

But, maybe you want to ask,

Why does it matter? The distinction isn’t important. What’s the big deal? There’s no difference.

Yes,  it’s important. Yes, there is a big difference. And I’ll start my explanation by saying this:

English Lit: I’m sorry, but I hate it.

I disliked reading every book shoved into my face as a high school student. I was a minimalist when it came to book reports and class discussions on Catch-22Of Mice and Men, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, variations of Shakespeare’s plays, and whatever else I was ordered to read that I can’t remember. Instead, I personally challenged myself with books like The Hunchback of Notre Dame; the objectivist and anti-altruistic controversy that is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainheadthe Apprentice Adept and Xanth fantasy series by Piers Anthony; and a handful of other not-so-well-known classics, like the All Things Great and Small autobiographical series by James Herriot.

I didn’t grow up loving any particular kind of reading. I disdained putting verses to memory. I don’t adore one era of literature over another. This is what english literature majors do: They love writing. That is, they love the study of writing. Every english literature course I ever took had me wanting to shoot myself in the head or at least beat it against a wall until I blacked out. I didn’t want to analyze verse and prose and dig further into the depths of what made Shakespeare funny and what made Faulkner different than the works of… pick your author. I didn’t want to talk writing. I wanted to actually write.

It's just blue, people.

It’s just blue, people.

Not to say english majors don’t enjoy writing — I’m certain many do — but that isn’t why they love reading. They read to study the writing itself: its style, verse, meter, prose, voice, the author’s “tics”, the history surrounding the time of the writing, and the peoples of those eras and histories. I can’t talk for two minutes on any one of those topics, they bore me so much. Really. If you want me to become instantaneously disinterested in creating a friendship with you, ask me what I think of any one of those subjects.

So, why did I and why do I read? To be told stories. That is, not to learn about people, but to experience them.

Journalists and creative writers: a comparison

Journalists write. I write, and sometimes do so in a very journalistic fashion.

Sometimes writing is like that.

Sometimes writing is like that.

Journalists have to research (or we hope they do) to assure their stories and articles are fact-based. I have to research to assure my stories and articles make sense and that I’m not ranting off some mindless drivel fueled only by my desire to be right. Or awesome.

Journalists and creative writers also both need to be quick studies on all topics that concern humankind. They need to inhale details and references and bits of fields to avoid sounding like a twit in their article or novel then quickly move onto the next thing. They have to be prepared with the right references and words, use the correct slang, and generally make sense to their readers.

But that’s where journalists and creative writers shake hands and part ways. The means to the task — writing — are very similar; it’s the ends that make the difference, and what a difference it is.

Journalists and creative writers: same skin, different animal

To recap, both journalists and creative writers

  • write as a profession
  • have to conduct research
  • are quick studies

But that’s it as far as I’m concerned.

I took a journalism class in college and learned a lot. Okay. That’s a lie. I recall learning precisely three things, and the last of those three dramatically changed the way I viewed, felt about, and read (past and present tense) journalistic media.

1. I learned how to arrange the words of a headline so that each line represents its own idea for easier comprehension. For example, here is a made up headline to show bad versus good word arrangement in a narrow, two-line layout:

Semi eases onto train

tracks, leaves 3 dead.

versus

Semi eases onto train tracks,

leaves 3 dead.

See? Isn’t that second one nicer? What a useful skill…

2. I learned about the sweet spot in newspaper layout that catches the most attention and the most advertising dollars. (Hint: It’s not everything above the fold. Generalities will get you nowhere.)

This last thing was the kicker:

3. I learned the same facts can be twisted to mean anything you want it to as long as you use the right words in the right order. My journalism professor had the class take the same interview notes and create two completely different yet equally believable stories, proving that journalists can take the same fact or statistic and have it appear two different ways depending on what words he uses around it.

I was shocked. I thought journalism was about honesty and about getting the truth to the people, not about intentionally biasing a story based on the sociopolitical tastes of the newspaper by which the journalist in question was employed.

How’s that for “spin”?

This exercise in journalistic creativity was one of two reasons why I immediately changed my mind about wanting to work for a newspaper.

I don’t want to make people agree with me for the sake of my paycheck. I want my readers to have a passion for what I’m writing because my stories touch them at a level deeper than facts and figures and interviews ever could. That’s why…

Journalists are not always creative writers, but creative writers are always journalists

The second reason I stopped my pursuit of a career in journalism was because it simply bored me. I don’t revel in facts and statistics. I thrive on imagination and storytelling. Journalism is all of the first and little of the second. Creative writing is mostly the second with some of the first as support. It’s a lot like a good bra: It doesn’t create the bosom, but it helps lift it up enough for people to take it seriously!

Creative writing is like a good bra: It doesn’t create the bosom, but it helps lift it up enough for people to take it seriously.

And storytelling isn’t always fictional; there’s a lot of it in non-fiction as well. I’ve edited many manuscripts in which I helped the author take simple statements of fact (“I went to my aunt’s lake house for the summer”) and encompass more than facts into it, even by removing words (“My summer: the aunt’s lake house”).

Yeah. Not the way it works.

Yeah. Not how it works.

A common misconception is that writing better is always a task of addition — adding colorful words and more descriptive imagery, for instance — but frequently writing well means mastering the artful subtraction of words and the careful placement of punctuation to say something outside of the words themselves.

That’s why the journalist is not the same as the creative writer and vice versa. The first can do her job well, and that’s respectable. The latter, however, can do her job well AND the journalist’s job, too… if she has to.


Follow up with me next week on reasons why creative writing is better than journalism. Boo-yah!

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