Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Fan the Creative Flames

by Julie Coulter Bellon

I was listening to a discussion a few weeks ago about whether a formal education and/or an English degree would actually stifle a writer’s creativity. I found the argument quite interesting.

As a writer who has an English degree, I have to say that I’m glad that I do. I was exposed to classical literature, modern literature, grammar classes, writing theory classes, and of course required to write many, many papers. I learned about how other writers approached the creative process, characterizations, themes, and plots. My professors did an amazing job in bringing long-dead authors and their works to life and when I graduated, one of the highlights of that time in my life was taking a trip to England and walking the halls of Oxford, touring Shakespeare’s childhood home, seeing where Dickens lived and many other tourist sites of authors I’d only read about. I’d always been a writer and loved writing, but my education only deepened and broadened my view of writing. My creativity seemed to be sparked as I attended classes and thought about characters of my own that I wanted to create and plots that could work. It was motivating and exhilarating for me. I’d seen the example of others and I was primed and ready to follow my own dreams.

So, in my experience, an English degree didn’t stifle my creativity in the least, in fact, it seemed to be ignited even more. But do I think a writer needs a formal education to be a writer? No. I do recommend, however, that a writer do a few things to educate themselves and improve their writing.

1. Read. Read all different kinds of genres, read fiction, non-fiction, writing books, anything that will inspire you in your writing endeavors and of course, just reading for the love of reading. You can live a million lives through books and you can feel the creative juices run through you when a book particularly excites your creative process. See what’s out there, especially in the genre you want to write in. It can be eye-opening when you see what is or isn’t out there and where your writing might fit.

2. Find or put together a writer’s group that can read what you’re writing, give an honest critique and help you improve.

3. Where possible, take a community education class on writing. It can help immensely to be reminded of current writing practices and have a teacher to bounce ideas off of for your best seller.

4. Watch people around you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been people watching and an idea for a particular character has come to me. (Don’t just sit and stare at people though. They get annoyed and think you’re a stalker or something.)

5. Listen to the voice inside you. I believe that we all have a creative voice inside of us that sometimes nags us to write down that idea you dreamed about, that encourages you to live your dream of writing no matter how long it’s been or how old you are, and reminds you that no matter how educated you are the voice will not be stifled.

Of course I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to earn an English degree and even though I'm no longer a student at a university, I still do all those things I mentioned above. I don’t believe that any education stifles creativity, I think just the opposite. Education of any sort, formal or informal, becomes a foundation that can support your efforts and reinforce that you can achieve your goals. It can fan the flames of creativity and allow you more freedom to do what you want to do. If nothing else, doing something for yourself expands your horizons and gives you experiences you can incorporate into your writing. Because, as a wise friend once told me, a sheltered writer is a boring writer and you wouldn’t want to be that!


At 3/13/2008 1:26 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

I thought of just saying AMEN but decided to add that even those writers who write from a heavy reliance on their own adventures and observations of people still need the tools to communicate. I've read too many books that are based on great ideas, but the writers incompetent writing skills make the books less than they could be. The opposite is true as well; that's where we get schollarly tomes that are dull, dull, dull. The best writers both live life and are educated.

At 3/13/2008 1:36 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Jennie I really think that your comment encapsulates it all---"the best writers both live life and are educated." Because isn't the point of being a writer capturing a slice of life that you want to share with others? Sharing something that is important to you that you've learned, experienced, or wanted to write about?

Thanks for commenting. I completely agree.

At 3/13/2008 1:58 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

just want to point out though, as a college dropout, that education can come in many forms. I think you can learn as much in a two day writing conference as you could get in two full semester writing classes.

At 3/13/2008 2:03 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Well, I only slightly disagree. I think education can come in many forms and I hope I pointed that out in my blog.

But I don't agree that you can learn as much in a two day writing conference as you can get in two full semester writing classes, because generally the focus is different. I think writing conferences are great because they are quick and to the point, but I don't think you can delve too deeply into an individual's writing or concerns in two days. Over two semesters, you could definitely have that.

I remember that you did a community ed type class, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about your individual attention to the students. Sometimes that is hard to come by.

At 3/13/2008 2:23 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

I'm depressed. A woman came up to me after the ANWA conference and said that she'd learned more in my hour-long class than she had in a full semester of creative writing at BYU. I've been living on that for more than a week, and here you come along and tell me she was lying. :)

Seriously, great post and thoughtful comments! I tend to agree with everybody...

At 3/13/2008 2:31 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Kerry, you are in a category all your own. I could learn more from you than any of the college classes I've ever been to. You are an amazing woman and one of the best writers I know. So she wasn't lying to you. I'm totally jealous she got to go to your class. What a lucky person!

At 3/13/2008 2:38 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

In response to Jeff, I echo Julie's comments. You can learn a lot of great techniques and tips at a conference, but a full semester class is similar to a writing group--you learn by doing, not just listening.

Speaking of which, a couple salespeople were here at BYU yesterday selling a board game (for $300) that is supposed to teach you financial literacy. They said the educational value of the game is "equal to 2-3 years of business school". I think the financial lesson that the game teaches you is: don't shell out $300 on board game.

At 3/13/2008 3:23 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 3/13/2008 3:38 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

It’s hard to be credible when your comment is full or writing errors, so let me try again:

Maybe it depends on what you are trying to learn, but I have taken several college level creative writing classes that didn't teach me as much as spending 45 minutes talking one on one with Scott Card.

It probably depends on who is teaching the class or workshop. But even in my field of work, I can learn more from someone who is in the field doing it for a living than someone in a classroom.

Take language. Do you learn more from a teacher out of a book or someone who has lived their whole lives in the country?

Give me a teacher who makes a living doing, not teaching. I believe it was a BYU creative writing teacher who told Jack Weyland to give up.

That being said, I still think you learn the most from just putting pen to paper and doing.

(Whoo hoo, I got to create controversy and it isn't even my post! Want to talk about SASE's?)

At 3/13/2008 3:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Education happens when the student is ready to learn.

Many college English students sometimes fail to recognize the wealth of knowledge, understanding and helpful writing techniques dished out in their course work because they don’t see their writing education as part of their career. They aren’t ready to learn. They may be more interested in passing the class or their social life than in the art and demands of writing a great novel. The difficulty of work-a-day, real world publishing tends to prepare the heart and mind of the in-the-trenches author to receive a writing education, be it gotten in a conference, workshop or a university classroom. To admit to learning more in a two hour conference than an entire semester of university studies may be more a reflection of the student's willingness to be taught than it is of the teacher’s ability to teach or the content of the course work.

There is an interesting duality in the biblical injunction to Judge not that ye be not judged and it has implication in what we authors call voice. Certainly the main idea of this verse is that if we judge unrighteous judgment God will judge us with that same level of critical and sometimes uninformed judgment with which we judge others. I certainly don't want to be judged with the same cavalier judgment with which I am sometimes guilty of judging others. On a more subtle level, it is interesting to note that when we make a judgment, we usually reveal more about ourselves—our impatience, our fears, our prejudices and our preferences—than we ever reveal about the object of our judgment. Take your viewpoint character. He comes on scene, views the other characters, describes the setting, analyses, interprets and judges the other characters. All the events in the scene are filtered through his view. And notwithstanding his focus on everyone but himself, we end up knowing more about the viewpoint character than we do about anyone else in the scene. When we make judgments we reveal ourselves—in essence, we judge ourselves.

So it is with learning the art of writing. There are immensely creative, talented, and experienced writers teaching in colleges and universities from whom we can glean a wealth of writing education. There also many knowledgeable and experienced authors who are not professors in any college who can teach us much. Judging one to be superior to the other may reveal more about our own bias than it ever informs us about the best way to gain a writing education.

David G. Woolley

At 3/13/2008 3:41 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

As both a teacher and a writer, I can see both sides, but I firmly believe that some education in writing can only help you be a better writer. I think you can be a brilliant writer if you're naturally gifted, but most people aren't and need some sort of guidance, especially if they're talking about publishing a book.
And a two day conference or one talk with an author generally isn't enough time to address specific issues to the writer.

I think college level classes can be helpful if you know what you want to get out of it. And you can sit and write all you want, and say that you learn by doing, but I agree with what Jennie said, "I've read too many books that are based on great ideas, but the writer's incompetent writing skills make the books less than they could be." So, in my opinion, you can put that pen to paper, but it might not be all that it could be without some education in the writing process.

At 3/13/2008 3:42 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

Clearly you don't know wht you are talking about. You hack!

What does that say about me?

At 3/13/2008 3:44 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

Sorry, Julie, That was intended for David. You were just too quick! I'd never dare to call you a hack.

At 3/13/2008 3:48 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Awww, I was just about to break out my file of names reserved especially for J. Scott Savage if he ever got on my bad side. *wink*

At 3/13/2008 3:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff: I think you're kind, gracious and full of charity :)

David G. Woolley

PS: don't tell anyone I got a red card in a game when I told the referree he was an idiot!

At 3/13/2008 3:57 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

#1) I've tried out reading a couple of romance books recommended by my mom. Frankly, they kind of embarrass me! *blush* (Didn't help that the one at the top of her list has a mid-40's woman falling for a 25-year-old man, that was the son of her former lover.) Maybe I'll stick with mysteries, for now. =)

#2) I really would not mind getting into an online writer's group. Might motivate me to write more.

#3) Taken two, one by our very own Scott, I mean, Jeff Savage. The other by the author of Fairhaven Chronicles.

#4) I wish I could use this to overcome my anxiety of being in a crowd. People watching is fun, but CAT watching is funner! See:

Jon, working on chapter 3 *sigh*

At 3/13/2008 4:07 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Jon, it sounds like you're on the right track and that maybe romances aren't the thing for you. :)

I agree about the writing groups. It really motivates me.

Some of those cats were adorable! I love cats. Thanks for the link.

At 3/13/2008 4:27 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Okay, I'm going to back track a LITTLE, and say that the biggest influence on my writing, bar none, was my high school creative writing teacher. He didn't teach from a specific lesson plan, but he opened up a lot of kids’ eyes to the world of reading and writing. He taught me about plot, showing, not telling, and not being afraid to stray from the most trod paths. And as far as I know, he never published a single book.

The teachers that gave me fits were the ones who spent hours and hours focusing on themes, and deeper meanings. Those teachers wouldn't know what to do with a fun read like Twilight, or Dragon Slippers, or most of the popular fiction out there if it hit them in the face.

We once had a guest poet who, I swear, wrote only about fast food. Entire poems about Big Macs! Finally I just raised my hand and asked, "Do these poems really all have deeper meanings or were you just hungry when you wrote them?" Let me tell you that did not go over well.

I also hated the teachers who couldn’t see a good story through the misuse of commas. That’s fine in a grammar class. But if you’re teaching creative writing, focus on the story, the characters, and the dialog, not whether or not you had a run-on sentence. Shoot I write run-on sentences in my books just to mock them sometimes.

Compare that to the first author who asked me, "Does your protagonist have a noble goal?" Or "Make sure your obstacles to success are very, very, high."

At 3/13/2008 4:48 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Jeff I wholeheartedly agree with you that a good teacher can make all the difference in the world. :)

At 3/13/2008 5:04 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

So, Jeffrey, it appears that your problem is not so much with writing classes as bad writing classes.

At 3/13/2008 6:16 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

No problem with writing classes at all. I think you should learn all you can wherever you can. My original point was just that you don't need to be a college graduate in order to be a good or even great writer. Just like I think you can be a great marketing VP or CEO without getting an MBA. (Okay, now I'm really going to be in trouble.)

At 3/14/2008 1:09 AM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

I hate you, Jeff Savage! I hate you and your stupid face!

At 3/14/2008 1:12 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

You promised you wouldn't tease me about my stupid face ever since I told Kerry on you!

At 3/14/2008 11:31 AM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

I'm really going to have to side with Jeff on this one. Or is it J. Scott today? I get so confused.

Rob, don't make me bring my pit bull up there. (You can see how vicious she is from the picture.)But I will sell you a board game designed to teach finance -- and for only $30. I think they call it Monopoly.

Julie, my gosh! You are the nicest person on the planet. But you don't have to spare my feelings. I KNEW she was lying to me. :)

At 3/14/2008 5:11 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

See, told you Kerry loves me best! Whoever I am.

At 3/14/2008 9:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good ideas. Thanks for sharing.

Terry Finley

At 3/14/2008 9:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Terry! I went to your blog and enjoyed all the links you had posted for writers. You've obviously done a lot of work to make a great resource for people. I am honored to be included!

Julie Bellon

At 3/15/2008 12:30 PM, Anonymous kathryn said...

Terrific idea for a post here! I think there's a big divide in the writing community between those people who have degrees in the field and those who don't. And I think you help to bridge that divide by making the great point that all education can be good for creativity. I think that the more we expose ourself to, the more ideas we get going in our brains and that's the start of creativity for everyone.

At 3/16/2008 1:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a question:

What do you think the difference is between creativity and inventiveness? Or is there a difference?

David G. Woolley

At 3/19/2008 1:00 AM, Blogger Gayle McCain said...

I do not have a college degree in English. I could barely write until I was nearly 50. Sigh. But I could tell stories, so I finally learned to put them on paper (or the computer).

Thank you for the info. I will begin looking into the things that you suggest in your article.

Thank you again

Gayle McCain


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