Creative Writing and the Twenty-first Century Workplace
Abby Bardi | May 2013
Throughout his high school years, my nephew Matthew was asked repeatedly by well-intentioned associates what he is planning to major in when he goes to college. His consistent response was that he planned to major in creative writing. While pleased at his commitment to my chosen field, I have also felt stirrings of concern: what would he do with a degree in a course of study that often seems, even to those of us who teach it, like a somewhat self-indulgent, even airy-fairy pursuit?
Since I last peppered my nephew with questions about his future, I have pondered the question of what, precisely, creative writing classes are good for, as clearly our students are not all going to become successful writers (increasingly an oxymoron). But could it be that, in fact, creative writing is a much more practical field than people think?
When asked why they are taking a creative writing course, students will often say they are doing it for fun, or because they have always been interested in writing. They generally do not respond initially that creative writing will prepare them to succeed in their careers. But when I surveyed my own students—more about that in a minute—the majority of them asserted that in their minds, anyway, that is indeed the case.
Perhaps, given the directions in which business has been moving in recent years, this should not surprise us. In “Uncovering the Secrets of the Twenty-first-century Organization,” Sinha et al. argue that in the workplace of the future, “innovation and creativity will drive status” (54).1 A 2003 report by the marketing firm enGauge lists “inventive thinking” characterized by “curiosity and creativity” in its hallmarks for twenty-first century academic skills.2 As blogger Amy Fries puts it, “we've become much more of a thought-based economy than a widget-based one, and such an economy has a voracious appetite for ideas and innovation.”3 Jim Prior, CEO of The Partners, a branding agency known as “the most creative company in the world,” notes that in a study conducted by his company among UK “business leaders,” “ninety-six percent agree that creativity is important in business strategy. Fifty-one percent believe it to be essential.” He concludes, “Creativity is no longer something that can be ignored. It is essential to business success.”4
While for years now, the corporate world has acknowledged the importance of fostering creativity in the workplace, the academic world appears to have been slower to acknowledge its relevance. Our recent emphasis on assessment, which boils down what is taught to a finite collection of “core learning outcomes,” implies that a college course should consist of a limited skill-set or content base that can be effectively transmitted in a standardized, reproducible form. This model would be extremely useful to a workplace in which employees produced an endless series of identical items, such as widgets. However, the only professional milieu in which the ability to produce an endless stream of uniform objects is important is the factory, and our factories are increasingly located in the developing world.
As we who teach creative writing know, creativity does not produce numerous identical products. If the recent academic model of a standardized course with reproducible results seems to replicate the assembly line and to prepare students for factory jobs that no longer exist, then creative writing courses help students develop skills they will need in the real contemporary workplace. According to Richard Kemp, who chairs creative writing at University of Maryland University College, “We hear all the time about companies, employers, corporations, and organizations wanting their people to 'think outside the box.’” If these abilities are increasingly critical, then creative writing is one of the most practical subjects in the academy in terms of that increasingly popular concept, “workforce development.”
Let’s consider some of the skills we teach:
- Writing: we ask students to come up with topics that are fresh and original; to convey a unique sense of voice in their writing; to use language in inventive ways; to avoid cliché; to create texts that cause readers to see the world from unusual perspectives.
- Rewriting: we ask students to think critically about their own work and to reframe it, letting go of old models and embracing new visions.
- Collaboration: we ask them to work in groups, to build consensus, to consider alternative approaches to their own material. Richard Peabody, who teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, compares creative writing courses to “a trade guild of sorts” in which students are taught self-reliance and collaboration, learning from “like-minded peers.”
- Critical thinking: we ask them to think critically about their own work without losing the spark of originality that informed it.
Not only are these skills “creative,” that is, demanding innovative ideas, approaches, and language, but they seem to be precisely the same skills demanded by the twenty-first century marketplace. As Richard Kemp puts it, “A key concern from employers continues to be that employees can't write well. While expository writing can teach people to write mechanically well, it doesn't do much for capturing and keeping the attention of fast-paced contemporary readers. That's where creative writing steps in—making the writing engaging, interesting, and reader-friendly.” According to Dr. Barbra Nightingale, professor of English and creative writing at Broward College, “Creative writing techniques aid any field of professional work because they help you to fine tune your ear for the right word in the right place at the right time. It doesn't matter what work you do; this ability will stand you in good stead.”
Presumably, students are not necessarily drawn to creative writing because they understand its potential practicality. However, I found that when I surveyed two creative writing classes at the end of the semester, students’ responses indicated that by the end of the class, they could make a clear connection between what we did in the classroom and their professional lives. The survey I gave my students was very informal and preliminary, but their answers suggest that, in fact, the skills we teach may be highly relevant to their careers, and that they appear to be well aware of that. Or, as one student put it, “This class was a bit more for fun than anything else, but that doesn't mean it can't have practical applications.”
While I had anticipated that my students might suggest that the class they had just concluded could be useful, I had not expected the degree of enthusiasm many of them expressed for its “practical applications.” One student who plans a career in commercial radio appreciated the way the course helped him establish his creativity, imagination, and voice, all essential qualities for broadcasters. And a student planning to go into animation or game design pointed out that being able to design engaging narratives will be crucial in either area. A broadcast journalism major commented that the course helped him not only to think outside the box, but to think without the box.
These career fields are fairly obvious in their connection to creative writing, but surprisingly, even students in more far-flung areas found creative writing relevant.
- A student planning a career as a park ranger said that at first, she didn’t think creative writing was pertinent to her field, but she found it was: “Being able to come up with stories or make something that happened sound more like a story is a great thing to know how to do when you are trying to get information out to the public.”
- A production supervisor commented on how our class, in which we did peer review workshops, had caused her to examine her own workplace communications more carefully to consider how an audience would perceive them.
- A nursing student commented, “I am currently pursuing my BSN in nursing with hope to go into medicine after the BSN. This course will go a long way in helping me to write a descriptive and detailed history about my patients. It is going to help me in my communication with my colleagues.”
- A computer programmer outlined the benefits for his position: “For every project I do I will be required to submit written documentation of my work. This can only be presented clearly and concisely by utilizing the same rules that govern the style and grammar of all works. For that purpose, creative writing is invaluable as you must constantly ensure that your thoughts conform to the point you are trying to make, and that the grammar and style will allow your work to be accessible to others.”
- One student summed it up by saying, “In every career I pursue, writing will be a part of it. Not only because it is something that I enjoy, but because it is a part of life, and it is mandatory in most workplaces.”
Students also commented on the benefits they received from the emphasis placed on revision by the workshop method. As one student noted, “Revising any work at all will help tremendously with any career if you want to get the right message across to your readers, whether you’re writing a story, essay, or research paper.” Another said, “[what also] stood out to me was the amount of revising that…needs to go into your work. In both the creative nonfiction [essay] and short story, I drastically changed or added things to make my writing better. And even in the final drafts I realized there were still things I could've done to improve my work.”
In this age of reduced education funding, one way creative writing departments can shore up support is to emphasize the applicability of the skills fostered by creative writing courses to the modern workplace. Perhaps, our models for assessment should be adjusted to measure not just reproducibility of results but non-reproducibility, i.e., innovative and original thinking.
And for our students, who are taking an enormous financial risk in the face of tremendous uncertainty, it’s true that the job market is in a state of what may seem like utter meltdown. But where there is change amid a slowly recovering economy, there is opportunity. It might just turn out that students with experience in creative writing will have an edge—not just because of their verbal and written language skills, but also because of their ability to think creatively, to revise, to collaborate, to think critically, to be flexible. Creative writing students have learned to think in terms of voice and audience, and to bring fresh ideas to bear upon traditional forms. These are all skills that could potentially be critical to success in a variety of fields.
While my nephew has ended up majoring in English and minoring in creative writing, the chances are good that his study of language and literature will prepare him better for the so-called “real world” than other more ostensibly practical subjects might have. Of course, my sister continues to voice her apprehension about his choices, as any parent would nowadays. “It all sounds like cat food in the end. You can quote me,” she said when I told her I was writing this article. But she admits that her views on the subject may be somewhat jaundiced: “I am a skeptical cynic who majored in film,” she says, adding with a sigh, “and I loved it.”
In this uncertain economic world where all bets appear to be off, maybe our creative writing students just need to do what they love—and perhaps that will turn out to be a practical choice after all.
- Neena Sinha, N.K. Kakkar, and Vikas Gupta. “Uncovering the Secrets of the Twenty-first Century Organization.” Global Business and Organizational Excellence. 31.2 (December 6, 2011): 49-56. Wiley Online Library. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/joe.21414/abstract. Accessed February 3, 2012.
- enGauge. “21st Century Skills: Literacy in the Digital Age.” North Central Regional Educational Laboratory and the Metiri Group. . 2003. Accessed February 3, 2012.
- Amy Fries. “The Power of Daydreaming.” Blog. Psychology Today. http://www.psychologytoday.com. February 9, 2010. Accessed January 15, 2012.
- Jim Prior. “Creativity Has Become the Elephant in the Board Room.” Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-prior/creativity-has-become-the_b_1180607.html. January 3, 2012. Accessed January 15, 2012.
Abby Bardi received her MFA, MA and PhD from the University of Maryland and is a professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Largo, MD. Her novel The Book of Fred (Washington Square Press) was a Book Sense pick in 2001 (hardcover) and 2002 (paperback) and is in its seventh printing.