Spring has finally come to Northern Michigan, where I live. One might think that would make things easier, that creative juices would flow as freely as the sap in the trees and plants that are absorbing the sunshine. But unfortunately that’s not how it works. Spring is a dicey time here, and not just because of the mud left behind by the melting of the snow. (Another thing that’s left behind is shovel-loads of dog feces, which the receding snow banks offer up as yet another sacrifice to the disappearance of winter.) The truth is that when the weather clears and the outside world looks brighter, sometimes it’s disconcerting when your internal world hasn’t kept pace. It can be depressing, because it’s hard to kick yourself in gear to get things done, and in spring time, you have no excuse not to.
So when I saw that a local store was offering a poetry workshop during the month of April in honor of National Poetry Month, I signed up for it on a whim. I don’t know whether I will write any poems as a result of this workshop, but that’s not really the point. What I’d like to happen is for me to rekindle my creative impulses, and so far, though I’m still wrestling with SI (Springtime Inertia), I think I can detect the beginning of some movement towards more of a creative flow.
But the workshop has reminded me of an important question I’ve had over the last few years–one that may be unanswerable but still deserves to be asked:
What makes good writing?
It’s a question I’ve been pondering seriously, even though it might sound like I’m being flippant. Having taught literature throughout my professional career, I should be able to answer that question without too much trouble. For example, as a writing instructor, I’d say, “Good writing is clear, succinct, and precise. It shows consideration for the reader by adhering to the commonly accepted rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It connects the ideas it presents in a way that is easy to read and understand.” I think that’s a good start for a college composition class, anyway.
But clearly this will not work for most creative writing. Poets, for example, often show little consideration for their readers. In fact, I’m not sure contemporary poets actually write with readers in mind; often they seem to be jotting down notes to themselves for later reading. Not that there is anything wrong with that at all–this is, after all, why I am interested in poetry at this point in my life. I’ve realized that there are certain subjects and ideas I want to explore that are better suited for poems than for short essays like this one, and I think it’s worth the time and effort to try to articulate them in poetic form.
However, let’s get back to the question: what does make good creative writing? I am having a hard time formulating an answer. As I get older, I seem to be suffering from the reverse of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I am less sure of everything I think about, even questions which I once felt sure of the answer to. But as far as good writing goes, I have come up with a provisional answer, and although I don’t find it very satisfying, I thought I’d try it out here.
I will begin by saying that the question itself is misguided. That’s because there is no such thing as good writing–only good reading. When we ask the question “what makes good writing?” we’re actually looking through the wrong end of the telescope. A good reader, I submit, is able to read almost anything and be enriched by the experience. A good reader will read any text, be it a poem, essay, novel, or piece of non-fiction, and find connections to other works. Of course, this is not to say there is no such thing as bad writing–I think we all know that it does exist–but that is a different issue. Seeing examples of bad writing will help us understand what not to do, but it won’t really help creative writers learn what to do to create good writing, so once again, I think it’s best to turn the question on its head and focus on what makes a good reader rather than what makes good writing.
After all, it has to be far easier to learn the skills required to be a good reader than to learn to be a good writer. And there are all sorts of advantages for the good reader–not only personal and professional, but social and political, as well. I think I’ll have to ponder on this one for a week or two, however, before I begin to identify how to create good readers and what makes good reading. For now, though, I’ll end with the suggestion that the world would surely be a better place if there were more good readers in it. I’ll go even further and add that maybe we’d all better get to work to see how we can do our part to create good, solid readers, because good readers make good citizens, and we can surely use a great many more good citizens in our world right now.