As a teacher of creative writing–mostly poetry–I wrestle with the issues of what makes “good writing” frequently, and the secondary issue of why we should try to write “well” even more often. Many people, including my students’ parents, wonder what the point of a creative writing major is. In the difficult economic situation of these days (and by that I mean the shrinking middle class, the fact that it really is harder, in 2013, to make a living, as the wealth is concentrated with the super-rich), people are understandably worried about what kinds of jobs they might get after graduating from college with a degree in creative writing.
My response is that every job avenue is largely about luck and chance, so why shouldn’t students choose to put their time and energies into studying something they love while they can?
I also try to be realistic with my students: it’s very difficult to get a paying job that has anything to do with your skills and knowledge as a writer. Having said that, I follow with my favorite advice: If you write, you’re a writer. It doesn’t matter whether you get published, win awards, teach at a university; it doesn’t matter if you end up making a living as a dental hygienist or a dog-sled driver. If writing is what you’re drawn to, what you do despite your better sense, then what that means is you understand the world and yourself through words. The far bigger “job” you have in your life is to try to make meaning of it, to continually ask questions and try to puzzle them out. Writers do this through writing. Painters through painting. Musicians through music.
But if publishing isn’t important–and I don’t think it’s as important as writing–then why should writers strive to write “better”? Why should they avoid cliche, try new strategies, read even the things they don’t “like” on first reading? Why should they take classes?
I think I’m coming to an answer for that. I think it has to do with the mind-numbing effects of cliche and shallow thinking. If writers get lazy and rely on cliches, then they’re missing opportunities to say things in fresh ways, in ways _only they_ can possibly say them. And that means they’re missing opportunities to push their own minds and understanding farther. Is the world hurt by a cliched, abstract poem, especially if it’s not published? No. But the writer is. Only through grappling with complexity can we begin to make sense of this chaotic, kaleidoscopic world. If we turn away from what’s difficult to understand and express–if we only watch television and shop like popular culture would have us do–then we can never rise to those elusive moments of insight. A poem–any work of art–is a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is, essentially, something that cannot be expressed in any other way. (For more on this, read Donald Hall’s essay “The Unsayable Said.“)
Because of that, as writers we MUST hold ourselves to our own high standards; we must keep trying to write better, write more precisely, write more boldly. We may define “good writing” differently–our aesthetic tastes will vary from writer to writer–but the more we learn, the more we read, the better chance we have of grasping the ungraspable. What else are we doing, any of us, besides trying to touch the edges of the great mysteries?