Why get a degree in creative writing? Or for that matter, why take a class?
Recently when writing grant proposals and proposing our new Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing, I’ve argued for creative writing as a form of economic development. In those contexts, I trot out statistics that show the creative economy is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, and that writing skills are valued highly by employers. Those figures are real, and they suggest that a degree in creative writing can lead to a good job, even a career, though the path may not be quite as straightforward as it is with a medical degree or an engineering degree.
But that is not what I am thinking about this morning. The job you could get with a certain degree is only one part of the value of an education, and only one part of economic development. The part I’m thinking of is a little ess tangible.
Yesterday, our local newspaper, The Commercial Dispatch ran an article on poverty in our area. Though I know that poverty is widespread, I was still struck by the statistics: that most of the census tracts in our area have more than 20% of their population below the poverty line or that over 45% of kids in our city live in poverty. Unemployment is high, but according to the article another part of the problem is “poverty of spirit,” a lack of hope or the inability of some who have grown up in poverty to imagine anything different.
It seems to me that this is one area where the study of creative writing can help. I’m not suggesting every poor person should enroll in a writing workshop, but I am thinking about the intangible effect it can have for those who do. In other words, we teach certain skills in writing. We teach how to communicate effectively, and we teach about form and conventions. But perhaps more importantly, in creative writing we teach self-expression.
It’s typically not one of the goals on my syllabi, since it can’t be measured. It’s like the unintended yet positive side-effects of an experiment. I can’t guarantee self-expression, but I can provide the opportunity for it to happen. In creative writing classes, students learn to write from themselves. They learn to revise this writing and to give it structure. They negotiate form and tradition to find their own way to express their most intimate thoughts. So even if students in my class never go on to write another poem or story in their lives, I believe they have gained an invaluable lesson, a lesson they have taught themselves about who they are.
A writing class trains us to imagine a world that exceeds our own, yet that also is inextricably tied to our core selves. Creative writing helps us see beyond our immediate circumstances and imagine a world we could inhabit. Creative writing attacks that “poverty of spirit” that can keep people in poverty even if economic conditions improve. If you don’t believe me,read the thoughts of poet Randall Horton on how a poetry reading changed his life.
Of course, this is not the kind of thing you’d say in a grant proposal, yet it is what I think of when I consider the economic impact of creative writing. Are there other fields that might have a similar effect? Undoubtedly. Any of the arts or any field that really grabs students’ attention can help them realize themselves, yet creative writing is uniquely situated at the crossroads of art and language to allow students the creative vision to realize themselves and the language with which to express it.