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Creative Writing is Not Hot

Each year for the past nineteen years, the International Reading Association has published a list of What’s Hot and What’s Not in literacy education in their magazine, Reading Today. The list is based on surveys of twenty five of the world’s top literacy gurus,  such as Richard Allington, P. David Pearson, and Timothy Rasinski. Survey respondents were asked to evaluate a list of literacy topics using the following categories: What’s Hot, What’s Not, Should be Hot, and Should Not be Hot.

Disconcertingly, but unfortunately not surprisingly, creative writing was voted unanimously to be “Not Hot.” However, more than 75% of the respondents suggested that this topic “Should be Hot.” To be fair, it was not clear from the article the reasons that creative writing was considered not to be a hot topic. It could be that creative writing is so integral to so many curricula that providing time for it in the school day and delivering plenty of great instruction to support it are accepted as matter of course. Perhaps creative writing isn’t a hot topic because there are no longer debates raging about its merit.

However, my hunch is that the above is not the case. My hunch is that creative writing was voted a not hot topic by survey respondents because no one is talking about it. And no one is talking about it because there are a million other initiatives, demands, and “hot topics” taking its place. (Including, perhaps, some of this year’s hot topics, such as the Common Core Standards and high-stakes assessment.)

So, how about this for a 2014- 2015 goal? Let’s make creative writing a hot topic again. Let’s talk about it, teach it, refuse to let it get slowly pushed out of the curriculum. But first, it might be helpful to think about ways we currently think about creative writing, and ways we could think about it.

According to Wikipedia (yes, yes, I know, it’s wikipedia, but I’m going with it), “Creative writing is any writing that goes outside the bounds of normal professional, journalistic, academic, or technical forms of literature, typically identified by an emphasis on narrative craft, character development, and the use of literary tropes or with various traditions of poetry and poetics.” The entry goes on to discuss the work of Mary Lee Marksberry, who quotes Witty and LaBrant in her book Foundations of Creativity. Maskberry (quoting Witty and LaBrant) writes that [creative writing] is a composition of any type of writing at any time primarily in the service of such needs as: 1. the need for keeping records of significant experience, 2. the need for sharing experience with an interested group, and 3. the need for individual expression with contributes to mental and physical health.

Woah. 

According to that definition, essentially any writing we channel kids to do in writing workshop is creative writing. The notion that creative writing is something that might happen once or twice a week after lunch when kids are waiting to start the real work, or that it is something they should do in their free time, that notion doesn’t hold up. In a writing workshop classroom, where each writer is taught to work with agency and independence, each and every day across a school year can be a creative writing day. When we teach kids to try out a variety of craft moves in their narratives before settling on just the right one, we are teaching creative writing. When we teach them to aim to evoke a certain emotion or mood in their essays, we are teaching creative writing. When we teach them to include a bit of their experience with a topic in their information reports, we are teaching creative writing.

Then, doesn’t teaching kids to write creatively really mean we are teaching them to take ownership of their work? To make choices about how to make their work better? To find their own voice and style as writers?

Let’s start a list. What are some of the ways you teach kids to make creative decisions while writing, in any genre? Together, we can make creative writing a hot topic again. And, more importantly, we can make sure that there will always be plenty of room in the curriculum for students to write, not just to learn, and not just to demonstrate knowledge, but to create.

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creativity, IRA

Anna Gratz Cockerille View All

Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).

11 thoughts on “Creative Writing is Not Hot Leave a comment

  1. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. What you wrote has made me reflect so much, on the teaching profession, on best practices, and on what I believe about how children should be treated. I am disheartened to hear so many of us feel frustrated and overwhelmed by initiatives that take away from creativity, passion and joy (ours and our students’). But, even greater than my disheartenment is my gratitude at continuing to connect with so many like-minded, uber-talented professionals like all of you who continue to hold on to what you believe is best for children, despite the pressure. Let’s keep on talking about and working toward our beliefs.

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  2. Thank you for this post. I have watched the creative writing units such as poetry, short stories and playwriting slowly disappear from my curriculum year after year. I even plan on sharing this with my department because I brought this up as a concern in our meetings before the school year started. I teach 10th grade in DC and not only do students have to take a district wide exam which will measure their reading comprehension, they also have to take a composition exam as well. So the pressure is on me to ensure that my students can compose an essay “on demand” and in response to literature. So any writing that is not academic or some form of a literary analysis is out the window.

    As I moved from middle to high school I expected there to be a change, but never did I imagine that I wouldn’t be able to allow my students to write their own poetry (only critical responses to it). We can’t create characters and conflicts that are shared in stories and plays. Nor can my students begin the school year writing about THEMSELVES! Why? Because we’ve got till April to prepare them for a test!

    I love what I do, but this is a sad state of affairs…

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  3. Hmm…I’m thinking about what my kids (and I) love to read the most. Are you? Research journals and newspaper articles are not what come to mind. Yes, I enjoy reading them; and even writing them when it’s the right time. However, most of us would agree that what we ENJOY reading the most is the creative work of authors who make up worlds, situations, characters, and problems that stretch our thinking, open our minds, and give us empathy for others. Creative writing is something not only our students need, but the world needs, in order for us to be sane, caring humans.

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  4. I am disheartened to see colleagues feel less motivated to emphasize the craft of writing and focus more on how to write a good short answer test response. I know this comes from a shift in testing that is being administered. Teaching kids to write well using topics that they care about will translate to them knowing how to write well on other topics. Let’s stop thinking about the test and start thinking about motivating students to want to become better communicators via writing.

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  5. Great idea Anna! Creative writing as a hot topic again! My students need it. My ESL learners need to tell their stories. They need to create stories that have connections to what they know. They can work on writing a story about their friends before they can ever write a complete argumentative essay. If I did not push creative writing, I would have to wait a really long time before we could do any real writing. I love the excitement that even my high school students show when they want me to read their stories or when they want to share their stories with the whole class. We need this excitement! My students need this excitement!

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  6. Very interesting post. I think you are right that workshop allows a space for students to explore and find their style and voice. Knowing our readers can help us help them as writers. Knowing what they are drawn to and why. Providing a variety of mentors. Teaching students rules and structures, so they can make deliberate choices on when and how to break them. And above all, providing choice. I believe choice allows for creativity. Choice in topic and style. For example, a narrative poem instead of a traditional narrative. I do believe creative writing is alive for students. Maybe it is us, the teachers, that need to dig in and become a little creative.

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  7. Such a thought provoking post, Anna. The “creative” goes hand in hand with any kind of writing we want our kids to be a part of. We are creative in fashioning dialogue, inserting facts and honing arguments, aren’t we? We are creative in giving our readers a sense of time, place and character – and here I’m thinking of memoir, personal narrative, and even argument writing. Great writing IS creative by definition…right?!

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  8. I go back to my years of listening to Don Graves talk about writing. If writing is thought of as composing, I think it could help. Once kids are writers and they are used to putting down cogent ideas be it in narrative or argument or expository writing or poetry, and they have “flow” then it can be channeled into forms in subsequent grade. I always felt that the “creative” composing of stories, tapped into a connection with their own ideas for many kids and allowed the composing to generate well-crafted writing. I loved the idea of kids being writers who were word-smiths who improved drafts sentence by sentence because revision mattered to them. For elementary kids years ago before writing workshop, there were assignments: Write a composition of 100 words on “this” topic: (How I Spent My Summer Vacation). Craft moves were not taught and there was no conferring during drafting. If writing is thought of as a process, then all writing is “creative”. The specific product requires certain elements, but the 5 paragraph essay or other formulaic writing, limits and in many cases confines writing, producing dull, repetitive, undistinguished products. For teachers who have not had background in learning how to teach writing (Graves’ research years ago noted the dearth of such course in teacher prep programs), and who have done little writing/composing themselves, they don’t know how to create writers and are probably too nervous to admit this. So writing “as assignment” or pure imitation of some mentor text (worthy or not) may not lead to the notion of seeing oneself as a writer, or production of well-crafted work. Look at what Nancie Atwell’s students produced, and later students of teachers who implemented her ideas or those of Don Graves. Look at examples from Lucy Calkins’ TCRWP-style classrooms. I always found that when writing was not taught purposefully, that those who read a lot or were “born” writers as young kids (gr. 5 and gr. 3) were much better writers and the others didn’t make a lot of progress just doing assignments. When I taught the workshop method and we spent adequate TIME writing, conferring, talking about writing moves, everyone grew. Writing fiction is important and writing with clarity is, too. I think that teaching young kids to fall in love with writing by enjoying it and getting the flow is vital to creating kids who want to write and who will become more polished writers as they learn various craft moves because they are writing with purpose. However, I think there has to be time for choice in writing and not always on-demand. I also think the great writing teachers need to share what they do and how they do it with others. It takes time, but is so worth it. I felt in the years when I was able to focus on writing that I had given my students a gift. That gift transferred to everything. It was agency and belief in their own ability to produce and create. We are creative beings, without creativity and creative thought, what would become of society. No new invention or paradigm shift occurred without creative thought. There has to be a way to show that helping kids tap into their own creativity on many levels in the arts and in the classroom is vital to their understanding of all the thought that has gone before. I second the thought that we need to bring the topic of creative thought and creativity in writing back to the debate about what helps our children to grow as learners. Sorry to go on, but I taught for almost 40 years and feel very strongly about this. Once the scheduled was changed and time was put into little chunks and I could not teach a workshop due to outside factors, I still had the mind-set but I think the idea of schedule should be an important part of the conversation.

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  9. Thanks for the definition of creative writing, Anna. You clearly “showed” how that definition also ties to #CCR Writing Anchor Standard 3. I wonder if the response would have been the same if the phrase “narrative writing” had been used since that would more closely “align” with the standards.

    Writing workshop is definitely a place to find “creative writing” but when that is not in place, are students writing too much to answer prompts or fulfill teacher requests? Maybe the emphasis arguments and informational writing have also had an impact?

    For your list ~
    Teaching students to add microstories to both arguments and informational writing are a definite example of creative writing. Other examples would be: Teaching students to write varied and interesting leads, use of humor in informational text (mentor texts like “No Monkeys, No Chocolate”), and parallel writing.

    Great post! Much more thinking needed!

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  10. Unfortunately in my county, because of the requirement of all courses to have an EOC, they changed Adv. Creative Writing (my son’s 7th grade elective) to “Jouralism.” The creative writing teacher is amazing, but I think the problem isn’t that it isn’t hot, it’s that many states are requiring standardized testing and end of course exams all the way down to kindergarten. Our school changed the course because their wasn’t an EOC developed for this course, and there was a one-week window to create one. Once again, we are teaching to a test, which is not creative at all.

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