I teach creative writing (among other classes) at Georgia Military College, a two-year school that attracts a little of everything: soldiers home from the desert; bright-eyed, overly confident, dual-enrolled homeschoolers; four-year-school-bound Target cashiers who couldn’t afford said four-year-school; and late-model teenagers trying to keep the hawk-like eyes of they mammas at bay for another four months while they decide what in the living toe jam they’re going to do with their lives.
When they get to English 210 Creative Writing, they lack a lot of things: punctuation; style; paragraph indentions; a home library. But the biggest thing they lack – confidence. No one has ever praised their writing, and it goes without saying that their creativity has been, at best ignored, at worst derided for its lack of financial utility.
So my first job as their creative writing instructor is to convince them that they have something to say that is important for our world – something that has not been said before. I always dread that first assignment they turn in, which is usually a regurgitation of awkward relationship situations and senseless violence and catchy phrases they’ve watched in movies and television shows and YouTube videos. My response is to read them this passage from letters & life, one of my favorite “writer’s life/craft” books from one of my favorite authors, Brett Lott:
[Courage] is a good word, one we need to get out and dust off now and again to remind us that every word you write down is your assertion and insertion into a world of both thought and image that hasn’t existed until you wrote down that word. Yet simply writing down words isn’t in and of itself a courageous act; it only becomes so when the words and the order in which you laced them aren’t borrowed from the vast steaming pile of clichés we always have ready at hand (Lott 50).
We write clichés, Lott continues, because “we do not have the courage to plumb the depths of our own experience.” I ask them to reflect on their own lives and try to come up with more authentic – and less bombastic – conflicts in their stories and scenes. When they lose the thief breaking into the apartment and shooting up the place, their stories take on a grit and beauty that makes all the changing verb tenses and punctuation outside the quotation marks worth it.
Then, at the end of the day, I ask myself if I am a fraud. Are the stories that I’m trying to write for the children who are the eventual readers of my work authentic and courageous? Have I spent time plumbing the depths of my own experience, trusting that I have enough, am enough, to create something the world has never seen before, and needs?
Lott, who also wrote one of my favorite books, a “literary murder mystery” set in Charleston called Hunt Club, finishes the chapter in life & letters by explaining that “Precision” is the great goal of serious writers, and is always the result of writing bravely, authentically. Precise writing is truthful and resonant and arresting – the kind of stories the world needs to hear, and that I (and you) need to write.
Lott, Brett. letters & life: on being a writer, on being a Christian. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.
Randall Bonser received a master’s in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University in 2015. He is the author of Lacrosse Laser and Comics, Graphic Novels, and Manga: The Ultimate Teen Guide, and lives in Metro Atlanta.