Harvard School of English is home to a powerhouse of renowned creative writers. As lecturers and professors, they devote countless hours to imparting the skills of their trade to students. The Crimson asked four faculty members who teach fiction writing classes to share their creative writing wisdom.
“You can create a whole world in your head and pass it on to other people with scribbles on a page,” said Claire Messud, senior lecturer. “Making up stories is open to everyone. Although not all Harvard students have the opportunity to take their classes, everyone can try their hand at creative writing.
Start small and take the time to write.
Briggs-Copeland speaker Paul Yoon, in an email: Start small. Often times when we have an “idea” to write something, we are operating at a somewhat abstract level and relying on the big picture. How do you start a story you want to tell? I like to start with a single sentence or focus on a specific object or detail, such as describing a setting or a character trait. Only that. Go mike, focus. Start small. And take it step by step from there.
Claire Messud, Associate Professor: Getting into the habit of taking the time to write is a challenge for many people. Almost everyone takes the time to exercise now. It’s the same, you can say, I’ll sit at my desk for an hour, or write until I have 200 words. You just made a plan. If you do something multiple times a week for weeks and months, you’ll get better.
Imagine the iceberg, not just the tip.
CM: It’s not just about finding the plot and the characters. It’s about really imagining the world, the circumstances and the idiosyncrasies of these characters and this situation, not just what’s going to appear on the page, but the whole world. Hemingway speaks of the tip of the iceberg. History is the tip of the iceberg, but there is a whole iceberg under the water. You have to do the iceberg to make history.
Revise for clarity.
Laura M. van den Berg, lecturer at Briggs-Copeland, in an email: In my experience, a common struggle for students is the discomfort of sitting down with the uncertainty of the first draft – it’s that is, I don’t know where this story is going, I don’t know what this character is doing, I don’t know how it’s gonna end. Sometimes students fear that this not knowing is a sign that they are doing something wrong, while not knowing is very often an essential part of the process.
I tend to write my own drafts very quickly, in a messy and intuitive way, and then spend a lot of time reshaping, redesigning, and re-imagining. In the first draft, the most important question I ask myself is “Why not? “For each draft after the first, the question is:” Why? “
CM: Revision is actually at least 50% of the work. Some of the things to think about: How much of what on my mind did I convey on paper? Have I been clear? It’s fine to be beautiful or lyrical or inventive, but none of that matters if you haven’t made it clear what you wanted to express. The revision process consists of clarification and distillation. If you have three scenes, each of which does one thing, can you find a way to have one scene that will do all three things?
To be read as if living depended on it.
Jamaica Kincaid, resident professor of African and African American studies, in an email: It is more important that you read than write because when you write you have read what you write first before you write. ‘to write. So the best thing, it seems to me, for a writer is to read as if living depends on it. Nothing else really matters.
LMV: If you want to write poems or short stories or essays or novels, it is extremely important to have read deeply into the genre, from canon to what the canon has lacked to what is being written right now at all. what is in between. And of course, writers should read extensively as well, wandering outside of the genres they are working in themselves.
PY: Always be open to inspiration. “Best American Short Stories” is a fantastic anthology. In terms of literary magazines, I think my favorites at the moment, the ones that feel bold and ambitious, and the ones I constantly want to choose are: Tin House, A Public Space and Ecotone. Books and stories are our best teachers.
Take your time during the posting process.
LMV: Take your time to explore the landscape. Read literary magazines and find out who regularly publishes works you love. Pay attention to the places where writers you admire have posted / are publishing their work. Make sure you’ve given your work everything you’ve got before you send it out into the world – an editor (almost always) will only read the article once. Strongly resist the urge to rush.
No writing is lost.
CM: Not writing is a waste of time. You can always write better, and everything you write will teach you how to write. You just have to dive in. You don’t have to be afraid. The language is ours. What great freedom.