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What Makes Creative Writing Creative?

When I started writing educational texts after beginning my career as a screenwriter, I struggled with the idea that I was no longer a "creative" writer. I wasn't inventing characters; I wasn't concocting conflict-filled adventures. I wasn't imagining new worlds or breathing new life into past ones. Nope. Mostly I was writing about all those things and how others made them happen. The work involved a lot of research, a lot of fact-checking, and a lot of summarizing. The research had to be condensed and combined; the synopses had to be brief, yet thorough. Much of the work had cultural value – especially the American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Filmsbut it wasn't creative.

A decade later, I decided to take up creative writing again on a part-time basis. I split my time between fiction and biographies, how-to books and various day jobs. The former kept me happy; the latter kept me solvent. Gradually the day jobs and the non-fiction writing overtook the fiction. Novels were relegated first to evenings and weekends and then just to Sundays. This routine went on for years, with literally no fiction ever being completed. It was a story as old as time.

When I finally left my last day job, I made a pledge that I would finish that mystery I'd been toiling over for a year-plus (or was it two years?) no matter what. I had no deadline, but I had determination. Getting back into full-time writing mode was difficult, but once I did, progress was steady.

But the truth that soon hit home during my readjustment period was that while I was becoming a full-time writer, I wasn't transitioning from non-creative writing to creative writing. I wasn't transforming myself from a dry distiller of facts to an imaginative artiste. It turned out that while I was agonizing over the fate of my characters, I was using all the skills I had honed as a staff researcher and a summarizer. The history depicted in my period mystery had to be credible, not just inspiring. The descriptions had to be lean and clean, just like my synopses.

Mystery writing, in particular, depends heavily on structure. And guess what other types of writing are structure-heavy? Histories, biographies, essays – everything I was writing before. Of course, there are elements of novel writing that have no equivalent in non-fiction prose. Dialogue, for instance. And sticking to the facts is kind of duriguer when you're recounting someone else's plot or life story, while with fiction, facts are more guideline than rule.

Still, I would argue that in the most general sense of the word, all writing is creative. Brain cells used for writing non-fiction are the same brain cells used for fiction. In the old days, it was common for novelists to turn out essays and other non-fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald penned over 150 essays in his day, for example, while Jack London's essay publication list is almost as long as his novel's. I don't know if authors back then felt pressure to publish in different forms, or if it was more a case of not feeling pressure to be one type of writer or the other. Either way, I don't believe their talents were greater than those of the best writers of today. They just approached their work differently.

Maybe the many blogs churned out by independent novelists today are the modern-day equivalent of essays of yore. Maybe every time we type a word in our "non-fiction journals," we know unconsciously we're writing creatively but just haven't gotten around to labelling it as such. I, for one, hope that some day we can stop dividing authors (and I would argue, elevating one type over the other) into camps and appreciate the beauty of all good writing equally.

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