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What I Tell My Creative Writing Students on The First Day of Class

The first duty of the writer is the rec­ti­fi­ca­tion of names—to name things prop­er­ly, for, as Kung-fu Tze [Con­fu­cius] said, ‘All wis­dom is root­ed in learn­ing to call things by the right name.” —Sam Hamill, “The Neces­si­ty to Speak”

To name a thing cor­rect­ly is to change the world in which that thing exists. There was a time, for exam­ple, when it was legal­ly impos­si­ble to charge a hus­band with rap­ing his wife. Or, for that mat­ter, a wife with rap­ing her hus­band. Why? Because the fact of being mar­ried was under­stood to mean, on the part of both hus­band and wife, a per­pet­u­al state of sex­u­al con­sent. Once we acknowl­edged that con­sent is some­thing that is giv­en, or not, dur­ing each and every sex­u­al encounter, forced sex with­in mar­riage became rec­og­niz­able for the rape that it is, and once that nam­ing was com­plete, both the world with­in a mar­riage and the world with­in which mar­riage exists—at least here in the Unit­ed States—changed. The “rec­ti­fi­ca­tion of names,” in oth­er words, has seri­ous per­son­al and polit­i­cal con­se­quences, though not always on such a grand scale. We all know the uncom­fort­able, dis­con­nect­ed, out of joint sen­sa­tion of want­i­ng to com­mu­ni­cate some­thing to some­one, but not being able to find the right words, and we all know as well not only the “click” that hap­pens when we do find the right words and the world sud­den­ly falls into place, but also the dif­fer­ence between the lives we live after that “click” and the lives we were liv­ing before it. That dif­fer­ence might be as rel­a­tive­ly small as the choice to start wak­ing up ear­li­er so you aren’t always late to class or as con­se­quen­tial as the choice to move out of your par­ents’ house and get your own apart­ment or to live abroad for a year in a coun­try where you don’t speak the lan­guage. Whether it’s big or small, how­ev­er, the choice will have con­se­quences.

The things you will try to name in the writ­ing you will do this semester—fiction, poet­ry, cre­ative nonfiction—are less eas­i­ly sum­ma­rized in a sin­gle phrase or sen­tence than those I’ve list­ed above. Rather than sim­ply nam­ing the desire to get an apart­ment, for exam­ple, you will try to name, to depict as accu­rate­ly as pos­si­ble, the expe­ri­ence of hav­ing that desire. This kind of nam­ing will demand of you a will­ing­ness to engage lan­guage more deeply, more sub­tly, more ful­ly than you may have done in pre­vi­ous Eng­lish class­es. You will not be telling your read­ers what you think or feel—or, in the case of cre­ative non­fic­tion, mere­ly what you think or feel—nor will you be telling them what you think they should think or feel. Rather, you will be invit­ing them to explore what it feels like to think or feel about the things that mat­ter to you. To learn to do that is to pur­sue a con­nec­tion between your facil­i­ty with lan­guage and the content—intellectual, cre­ative and otherwise—of your char­ac­ter. I do not mean by this that peo­ple who can­not write well have no char­ac­ter or that writ­ing is the only way in which peo­ple can show their char­ac­ter. I mean, sim­ply, that you can­not write well if you do not make this con­nec­tion, because not to make it is to fail, as a writer, in hold­ing your­self account­able for the qual­i­ty of your own think­ing and feel­ing. Or, to put it anoth­er way, it is to fail to take your own intel­lect and cre­ativ­i­ty seri­ous­ly.

As a teacher of cre­ative writ­ing, I mea­sure my suc­cess not in how many A’s or B’s I give out—since grades reflect the sur­face of learn­ing, not nec­es­sar­i­ly its quality—but in whether my stu­dents have begun to take on the respon­si­bil­i­ty not sim­ply of hav­ing some­thing to say, but of hav­ing the audac­i­ty to find words com­pelling enough to com­mand a reader’s atten­tion above and beyond the fact that they were writ­ten in response to a class­room assign­ment. That is the chal­lenge we will face togeth­er this semes­ter. I am look­ing for­ward to it.

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