One question that I am frequently asked is why I decided to study literature as opposed to creative writing. The answer involves the conflict that seems to exist between these two branches of English within the realm of the academic.
I decided to major in English when I was a junior in college. However, once this fact was established, my university asked me to answer a particular question: Are you a reader or a writer?
To me, this question was a rather surprising one. After all, the best writers are often the best readers, are they not? Now, what the university actually meant was that they offered two different paths to an English degree, one focusing on literature and one on creative writing. Excited by this writing option, I looked forward to attending my first creative writing course as an upper-level student. However, once I actually arrived for my first day of the programme, I found myself both surprised and disappointed.
This disappointment arose from a negative experience with my first day of the course. Sitting down in the classroom full of other potential students, I was issued two items. The first was a copy of Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. The second was a list of restrictions as to what would be deemed ‘unacceptable’ or at least, ‘highly discouraged’ topics. Expecting to see a list of controversial issues such as politics or race, I was very surprised when I read through the list and instead found that the restrictions included: ‘science-fiction, horror, fantasy, paranormal,’ and a number of other genres which can most accurately be described under the term ‘Speculative Fiction.’
The university preferred and encouraged topics of a more ‘literary’ nature despite using the text of a popular speculative fiction author as a basis for the course. Biographies, travel, nature and a relatively new genre coined under the term ‘creative non-fiction’ were among the favourites of those encouraged.
It was because of these constraints that I made the decision to study literature, as it posed none of the restrictions on topic choices which were found in the ‘creative’ writing programme. In literature I was able to pursue topics for which I found a passion that has carried me into later studies.
A few years later, when deciding to choose a graduate programme, I again discovered much conflict between the literature and creative writing realms. Literature was seen by many as the higher of the two fields of study. I was even asked at one point if, given my love of writing, I would not prefer to obtain my degree in an ‘easier’ creative writing field.
This implication that the field of studying literature is somehow more rigorous than the actual writing of the stories being studied, in my personal view, does a disservice to both fields. I have found that through the majority of my studies, creative writing and particularly genre writing, has been viewed as a detriment as opposed to an asset. It is seen as the lesser of the two disciplines. In my view and experience, the idea that creative writing is easier than literature is far from the case. I think both disciplines require a rigorous and continual amount of work.
One of the lessons which I have learned through the creative writing process was how to write long, complex pieces which must be carried coherently over hundreds of pages. Another valuable lesson I gleaned from this process is facing the criticism which always occurs when one’s work is shown to others. This plays true in arguing ideas in the world of academia and, perhaps more importantly, learning to accept outright rejection.
In order to compose an academic paper, a writer has the benefit of relying upon the work that has come before. In the realm of science-fiction or fantasy, this is often not the case. While it is true that certain conventions do exist within specific genres, some of the greatest authors often blur, distort, or even outright abandon the rules.
Characters born in a non-existent world require a great deal of research to bring them to life. Characters are often prone to arise with interests which are not shared by their author. In my case, such topics have included military structure, torture tactics, martial arts, and human anatomy – just to name a few. Each of these interests presented themselves as a new topic in need of thorough research and investigation. My best example involves research on martial arts, where I spent weeks watching classes in both karate and taekwondo in order to learn how my characters would properly engage each other in forms of hand to hand combat.
Though I have ultimately followed the literary path it is my contention that these two fields teach similar lessons including the value of research, editing, and the work required to complete a long piece.
To return to the originally presented question: am I a reader or a writer? The answer, as it turns out, is a rather simple one – I am both.