This past week has been an incredibly difficult time, to say the least. Tragedy has occurred on both on our campus, and nationally. Everyone deals with grief in different ways, but retreating to fiction, whether on the screen or on the page, has long been a source of comfort for many people. Personally, immersing myself in a thick novel has always been one of my primary coping strategies. Although I’ve always been an avid reader, and a mediocre creative writer, crafting stories has not always been my strong suit. That being said, I’ve taken four creative writing classes over the almost sixteen years I have been in formalized education, and two of which have been at Denison. And after somehow making it through all of them with some level of success, I am an adamant believer that everyone, regardless of writing ability, should take a creative writing class.
It’s no secret that reading increases people’s capacity for empathy. Any creative writing class requires students to read a wide array of fiction pieces, by a variety of authors. These stories not only serve as writing models, but they can also introduce students to worlds and situations they would never encounter otherwise. For example, an article I read recently for my Creative Nonfiction class mentioned an essay called “The Fourth State of Matter” , by Jo Ann Beard, that was published in The New Yorker. It interweaves the story of a professor caring for a dying dog, with the traumatic experience of a when graduate student opened fire on her department and killed several of her closest colleagues. The essay was gut wrenching and powerful, but it exposed me to an event that I would have never learned about otherwise. One I never would have found without my creative writing class.
More than reading renowned author’s writing, though, creative writing classes give students the chance to read their peer’s writing. This is both a magnificent and terrifying thing. Magnificent because it has allowed me to see so many people on our campus in a different light. I have found that there is something about creative writing that lets them people share their most personal stories, without being ashamed. I have learned about family illness, death, divorce and other deeply personally things that I never would have known about my peers otherwise. Creative writing helps you realize that no matter how ‘together’ someone appears to be, we all have our own personal battles.
The terrifying component to this process is, of course, that your peers have to read your writing as well. Listening to everyone talk about your work can feel like standing stark naked in front of the class and having all of your flaws pointed out. But it can also be incredibly uplifting when they are supportive of your work, which the overwhelming majority of the time, they are.
I would argue that the level of vulnerability that creative writing classes require is one that is unmatched in any other department. But that level is so desperately needed in today’s world. At a time where everyone is constantly defensive and on edge, being vulnerable and empathetic is the first important step in moving towards a kinder, more understanding country.