On Poetry, Prose, and Videogames

JLawrence Kenny

The Death of Creative Writing in Schools

on September 28, 2011

One of the things I’ve noticed since beginning my blog is just how hard it is to really write. The ability to put words on paper in an attractive manner is difficult in and of itself, but when you are writing creatively, writing stories and novels, it becomes infinitely more complicated. I consider myself a fairly decent writer, doing my best to write my own novel in my spare time, but I find myself hitting blocks far more often than I should, doing far more research than actual writing. I was sitting alone the other day, looking at a blank sheet of paper, willing the story to materialize on the paper, when I think I may have stumbled upon the reason for my difficulty. Public school English courses.

The problem as I see it stems mainly from standardized testing. When English teachers are teaching their curriculum, they aren’t giving students the tools they need to become a successful writer, least of all creative writers. What they are doing is teaching for a test. The national desire for uniform success leads to students learning a style of writing that is formulaic and predictable, rather than emphasizing literary techniques and how to combine them in multiple ways to create original work. This almost mathematical approach to writing only gets worse the more strenuous the curriculum is, as I specifically recall in my International Baccalaureate Literature and Composition class. The method was so ludicrously precise, that we were taught every single thing we could and couldn’t do, from the exact progression of sentences, to how we were supposed to annotate text. I’m not kidding when I say that our teacher taught us exactly how we were supposed to notate our tests; he required us to underline certain portions or circle certain portions depending on what significance it had upon our argument.

Of course, this isn’t to say that we, as writers, should completely throw off the oppressive shackles of regulation and embrace chaotic writing. Unless your message or style is specifically focused on chaos, writing requires and is expected to flow in a certain way most of the time out of necessity. Even in creative writing, your work must be orderly so that your reader can easily understand you. After all, what good is a message if it isn’t received by its expected audience? And though I have yet to encounter a job so rigidly precise as my IB courses, certain employers may require you to adhere to a certain format if you write articles for them, because society has grown up learning these techniques, making it even easier to understand, even if it hampers your creative process.

But, again, I feel like this rigid structure has harmed a generation of creative writers in an age where the written word is losing its value. When I’m writing, I keep drifting back into this dull format of writing, and I have to constantly change the structure so that I don’t get bored with my own work. If I’m bored writing it, what is that suggesting for my audience? Nothing good, that’s for sure. Fewer and fewer people look to writing as a profession, and so none of them bother to really learn to write past their dull English lectures, confident that it, along with most of the other things they learn in high school, are not going to affect their lives afterwards. And so, thanks to initiatives like No Child Left Behind or the FCAT, which force teachers to teach for a test rather than impart useful knowledge unto their pupils, I find myself trying to distance myself from predictability with an annoying consistency. The balance between creativity and practicality has been shifted, and I always hope that the scales may soon swing in the other direction.


6 responses to “The Death of Creative Writing in Schools

  1. Whoa hang on there, not so fast. While you may not have enjoyed your English classes in school, and while you may have abhored standardized testing is, in my opinion, irrelevant to the matter of whether or not your creative writing is at a level you want it to be.

    Writing is a solitary business and depends as much on your desire to be a better writer than anything else. When you get a chance pick up a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing – a phenomenal memoir unto itself but also an insightful book on writing from a master. Stephen King had a pretty horrible childhood which he describes in detail in his descriptions of his memories.

    Despite these obstacles, King went on to be a prolific writer and a master at his craft.

    It is well known that J.K. Rowling was on welfare and a single parent raising her child while writing Harry Potter. She is now the wealthiest woman in Great Britain.

    It is easy to look outside ourselves and find fault with education systems, teachers, classes, etc. but it is what we do about these perceived gaps in our writerly arsenal that makes all the difference.

    When you get a chance, stop by my blog and read: Why You Should Keep Writing and see if any of it resonates with you.

    Best of luck, Carol

    • I didn’t mean to come across as if I blamed standardized testing for any flaws in my writing, only that it really didn’t help. Certainly, I learned lots of valuable material in high school regarding structure and grammar, etc. I just meant to say that it didn’t help me develop my creative process at all, and that the extreme rigidity required of me sort of changed how I wrote since I didn’t have experience doing anything else. One of the points I meant to address was how the general dislike of school by teenagers tends to turn them off of learning on their own time, writing in general, as its such a tedious (though rewarding) task. I’ll definitely be checking out your blog though, and I’m glad to know that my post caught your attention, even if it was in a negative manner. ^_^

      • Hi JL, thanks for your reply above, and thanks for subscribing to my blog that was very nice.

        Here’s a little story about how I learned to love books and reading. In fifth grade i had a teacher who would read to us from the Hobbit everyday after we came in from the playground. She instilled in me a lifetime love of fantasy fiction, science fiction, etc. This teacher also had 100’s of books in her classroom, and she gave out prizes to the kids who read the most books. (I can’t remember if I read the most, but I read a lot.)

        Many years later, when I was in high school I started making a summer reading list, and I included books that were short, long, easy, popular, difficult and classics. I can still remember staying up all
        night on warm summer nights when I picked up a book I loved and just couldn’t put down.

        But I agree that those forms of creative inspiration were not born out of my junior high or high school grammar lessons, and test taking.

        If you had a chance to read the post I mentioned above, I guess yoiu know that I believe writing is something I am compelled to do. I don’t find it tedious because I inherently enjoy it. It would be painful to persist in doing something you don’t like.

        I’m also unclear if you are saying “kids” (not you) may feel that writing is tedious but rewarding or if YOU think it is…? 🙂

        Be well
        P.S. I can’t see my text in the reply box because it is black on black. Apologies in advance for typos.

      • I absolutely love to write, Carol. Why would I have a blog if I didn’t like it? Haha. I’m even in the midst of writing an entire novel. I’m just saying that most students who have had bad experiences with English teachers or courses will sometimes be pushed away from writing because of bad memories, or what have you.

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