Creative Writing is About Breaking the Rules

I have wanted to be an author since before I even knew how to pick up a pencil, but high school creative writing is the worst class I’ve ever taken. But don’t get me wrong. As an aspiring author, avid consumer of literature, and a lover of stories, I relish every moment I get to learn more about the things I love. In English class, in a Youtube video, in a conversation with my friends. I also love learning through reading — both from nonfiction, which is actually educational in name, and fiction, which I argue is also educational just disguised as not so. There are so many lessons you can learn from a book, even if it’s fiction. There are almost always important takeaways about morality, life, or general philosophy. For students of literature like myself, fiction is something we constantly dissect. Books have been some of my greatest teachers, especially when I put pen to paper and transform simple marks on the page into something else. 

I took a writing workshop over the summer last year, which was one of the best experiences of my life. I truly looked forward to our daily discussions about technique, either from a more traditional lecture, a seminar, or a discussion of a reading. I looked forward to the writing prompts, the sharing, and most of all, the workshops. Workshops are known as a nerve-wracking experience, and I am giddy in my seat listening to others share their perspective on my writing, but people are so much nicer than you expect, and their suggestions can be exactly what you need when you’re stuck. Reading others’ pieces for the workshops was exhilarating too, to see wonderful and amazing literature that hasn’t been published or shared around the world yet. For the first time in my life I was surrounded with people as driven and motivated as myself, with common interests. I could say one thing that they would instantly get, something I hadn’t had with my friends at school. Leaving the workshop, I gained wonderful new friends who have produced some of the most amazing writing I have ever read in my life. 

So, going into creative writing class, I was excited. But boy, I was wrong. 

First of all, most of my classmates are freshmen. I do not support the discrimination of underclassmen, but much of the course material is geared towards freshman. When my teacher zoomed through a Google Slides presentation, I realized that the material being taught was literally content I had taught to my TWS classes last year – and I had taught third grade last year. I had a sudden flashback to the first week of freshman year, when my English teacher had to teach my class how to indent. Sometimes I forget how little focus is truly placed on writing education in our schools, and in moments like these, I’m hit hard by the reality. In elementary and middle school, a common belief is that the more you write means better, because you would probably get a higher grade for writing more. Suddenly, in high school, everyone is struggling with concision and meeting the word limit. Secret to writing #1: If you can write the same meaning in fewer words, always choose the version with fewer words. 

But that isn’t necessarily the fault of a single creative writing class. It’s more reflective of a school system that is failing their students. Growing up, I had always believed that I would one day be a STEM kid, ultimately going into computer science or engineering. In middle school, there were various STEM classes I could take, and high-level ones at that. I even took calculus in freshman year of high school. I genuinely didn’t know that other paths were even open to me to consider. It was always discouraged somehow, considered inferior to STEM. In high school, I realized that the STEM kids had so many opportunities to take high-level classes, many taking 6-7 AP classes in sophomore year. There were probably a hundred freshmen who had taken AP calculus alongside me, and then they’d go on to take AP Chemistry, AP Biology, AP Physics, AP Environmental Science, AP Computer Science, the list goes on. But for kids interested in humanities, most of those APs and higher-level opportunities don’t even open up until later. The first AP English is only available in junior year, and while there are several levels of math that students can take (ranging from Algebra 1 to Calculus 3 and Differential Equations) as well as a wide range of science courses to pick from, there are only two higher-level English courses offered at all. In the arts, there are barely any AP classes. There doesn’t need to be AP courses, per se, but in a school system defined by the GPA, anything that bumps your GPA down is generally discouraged. 

That was one thing. But I hadn’t realized how quickly graded assignments would change my excitement to write. My teacher grades while using a rubric, which certainly makes life easier. But using a rubric means following rules. 

Another issue I had with the content of the class wasn’t just that it was easy (I mean, I’ll take a relaxing class over a stressful one any day), but it taught writing in an extremely formulaic, reductive way. Here is a plot diagram: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. Don’t get me wrong, I teach this diagram to my students as well. But even to my third graders I had explained that there are always exceptions, like cliffhangers, or mini tensions outside of the main conflict that make the mountain spiky instead of flat. Here is how to make your characters. Here are some grammar rules. Here is how to write a poem.

After I began to take writing seriously again, my whole life has been an agonizing battle between writing what I want and writing what will get me published, a good grade, or that can be shared. Notice how I have to choose — those two things are mutually exclusive. This has become very, very apparent in my creative writing class. 

A very essential part of any English, writing, or foreign language course is learning the grammar. This is often tedious, confusing, teeming with rules that escape a student’s mind on standardized tests and can often be pointed out with the help of Grammarly Premium. Learning correct grammar and conventions is always useful, as it is required in formal writing and in general is an important life skill. However, restricting creative writing to its rules is often frustrating and the opposite of creative. 

One of my favorite new discoveries over the past year is absurdist fiction. I wrote a piece from the perspective of a character who was being gaslit (as well as a lot of other absurd things going on) and it literally got to her head. I tried to write as if her thoughts were being invaded with indoctrination. Writing with certain grammatical errors can actually serve a purpose and create a great effect. In my piece, it helped to show interruptions, when her own thoughts were being replaced with the ones others wanted her to think. Run-on sentences in first person can show the effect of an anxious brain, or perhaps just a talkative extrovert who likes to ramble, or maybe it can create a more child-like narrative. 

There are many other rules and formulas in which creative writing is taught, which doesn’t ever make sense to me. It’s useful to learn techniques, which are the tools we use to craft our stories, but requiring or excluding certain things completely can hinder masterful new visions. And all too often, we hear of a formulaic plot structure to use that is “foolproof” and will always create a great story. But it gets boring, seeing all of the old things repeated, a fill-in-the-blank template with new words inserted in here and there. There are always exceptions to every “rule” we teach, and I think we should start to teach that, and allow it, to not penalize students—writers—for their unique artistic vision. We’re taught rules in elementary school because at that age we don’t understand nuance and need a simplified explanation of the skills that will ultimately be useful to us. Take “show, don’t tell”. It’s a wonderful, useful strategy. But of course, it’s not meant to be used in every single sentence. By high school and college age, I think we have developed a more nuanced understanding of the world, of language and its meaning/power. By this age we are able to create art of our own instead of regurgitating what we know works. Writers who subvert expectations and these traditional “rules” are sometimes called lazy, but I think that what they’re doing is the opposite of lazy — it takes more effort to invent something new, after all. They may not always succeed— these pieces are known for being hit or miss—but I have to commend them for trying to add more flavor to the world of literature.

Finally, I always feel like I’m constrained by my age. In my creative writing class, I am scared to write anything that skirts the line of “not school appropriate”. But in truth, most of what I write is “not school appropriate”. To be frank, my taste in stories is the depressing kind. I love disappointing endings, heartbreaking endings, endings in which the characters get everything except what they want. Much of my stories are full of sadness without much happiness. Writing has always been a safe space for me because for most of my life I didn’t have anywhere else to turn to. I write about my deepest traumas, about societal issues and injustices. A lot of people prefer reading for the purpose of escapism, because reality can be incredibly painful, the world an unfair and harsh place. I think that’s valid. But I also think many people are often disconnected from this reality, and I write to show, look at this, it’s fiction but it’s also not. Look at it this, it’s fiction but it’s us. Sometimes the only way reality makes sense is vicariously, through characters on a page that do not actually exist, but are living out something eerily familiar in the most unfamiliar way. My writing usually makes a statement, but it’s also a question. Look at this fictional world. Look at the parallels between this world and our world. What are we going to do about it? I understand if my writing is too depressing, serious, or triggering for anyone, and I don’t mind if people don’t want to read it for that reason. But many people don’t take me seriously at all because I’m only in high school and that makes me too young to speak out about these sorts of things. Even though this is also my reality. I write what I know. What I’ve experienced, what I’ve lived. What I’ve seen, what I’ve heard. How come I’m not too young to live these things, but I’m too young to talk about it and to say that it’s wrong? I do understand why certain age categories are important for books, movies, whatever it is people consume, but I don’t think it has to be completely strict by age. In my opinion, it depends on the maturity level of the reader, not the age. We should not silence out young voices who want to speak about something painful or something darker than what is usually expected at that age. Our youth suffer traumas much deeper than we think they do. Sometimes by “protecting” our children we are doing anything but that. 

Here are some “rules” I’ve learned over the years that I think were meant to be broken.

  1. Write in proper English. (this takes away from certain effects! See: writing in vernacular, writing to convey the effects of anxiety, conveying character voice, etc.)
  2. Use more interesting verbs other than “said”. (said is fine, thank you. Excessive ornamentation gets tiring. Just don’t be too repetitive. But it’s often the structure more than the verb)
  3. Use the plot mountain (there are simply too many exceptions)
  4. Likable characters (they don’t always make for an interesting story, and it’s interesting to explore morality and other issues with unlikeable characters) 
  5. Never start a sentence with “and” or “but”. (These words add so much drama. See: And then, it happened.) 
  6. Imagery is always needed… or show don’t tell, or any technique, really (there are always exceptions. Besides, when you use anything too much, it gets boring. Only write what is truly important and necessary to your story)
  7. Always use active voice (it depends on what you want to emphasize) 
  8. Avoid too much dialogue (Dialogue heavy stories can be wonderful. See: Hemingway) 
  9. Avoid cliches (they’re difficult to work with, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pull it off) 
  10. Avoid run-on sentences/sentence fragments 

There are many, many more. I encourage you to think outside the box and to blur the lines whenever you can. You have more potential than a ready-made list of things to do. 

Published by Brooke Xu

Brooke is a high school student and has been creating stories since she learned how to pick up a pen. She is a tutor for the NC Virtual Peer Tutoring Center where she was previously a member of the Writing Center. In addition, she is a member of the Wake County Public Libraries teen volunteering program, has been a teacher assistant at Cary Chinese School, and participates in volunteering events which include educational activities for kids. In her free time, Brooke enjoys journaling, reading, singing, and raising plants.

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