What Kind of Writing Should We Teach?

Dear Reader,

I have addressed this topic before, but I had a new bit of input and so I wanted to return to it briefly. I have a friend who pooh-poohs creative writing as a fairly worthless endeavor. She does not see her children ever really needing or using it. But she does want them to be able to write well by academic standards. Her husband is a university professor, and she values the ability to write academic prose but does not see how creative writing could help at all.

My thought has been that I would much rather read academic writing if it is also readable and even approaches entertaining. Why must these two be distinct categories? I can only think that the ability to write creatively will help one in other areas as well.

I was pleasantly surprised then to read an article recently in Harvard Magazine in which the subject, a sociologist examining poverty in America, is praised by his colleagues for how interesting his academic writing is. This is a very small part of the article and really not the point of it at all, but it was nice to hear that academic writing can be interesting and that others value its being so as well. Here is what it says:

“Whether he is writing about race and poverty or about firefighting, Desmond’s prose displays a lyrical quality and keen observation.” (“Disrupted Lives” by Elizabeth Gudrais, Harvard Magazine, Jan-Feb 2014)

Matthew Desmond, the sociologist the article is about, says of his own work that he “aimed to create a ‘non-textbook textbook’.” While his main purpose seems to have been not to boil down his subject matter to a point were it oversimplified the real situation, he also says that he didn’t want to present just “a collection of bold-faced terms and facts you memorize for the midterm.”

And I think that beyond being dull, this is probably a lot of the problem with other textbooks or non-living books. They take all the life out of their subject matter and with it a lot of the truth. Because truth is often complicated and we lose something of it when we boil it down as Desmond describes.

So to return to my friend who sees no value in creative writing, I would like to say first that all writing can be benefited by elements borrowed from creative writing. There is no need for academic writing to be dull. And I think a lot of the reason we do not see this is that we no longer value living books. We live very much in a textbook world. We need to get beyond this so we can have not just better writing but more interesting, more informative and even more true writing.



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