It was late afternoon and there was poetry to be written in Sarah D’Stair’s creative writing class. Her passel of Upper School students included freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Conspicuously absent, or at least discreetly unacknowledged, were muses. Instead of waiting for inspiration, D’Stair and her writers got down to the matter at hand: writing. The creativity in creative writing can only appear once pen has been put to paper and thought given form. By definition, creativity demands creation, and words very seldom write themselves.
“Allow the unconscious, spontaneous mind to take over,” D’Stair told the class. “I want you to picture the Platonic ideal of the image I tell you and write the most descriptive thing you can in two minutes.
“We’re going to build a poem,” she said.
D’Stair proceeded to give three prompts: an old book, a puddle and child sitting on his front stoop. After the students finished Round 1, D’Stair laid out the modulation to Round 2. “Explore the nonlinear nature of poetic language. See a thing and make it something else. Make the reader do a little mental work to get the fullness of meaning,” she said.
Now the old book was underwater and the child who had been sitting on the stoop was falling through a bottomless well into the abyss. After two more modulations and several minutes of thinking and poeticizing, D’Stair introduced a final grammatical wrinkle: Lose all the prepositions and conjunctions.
“Intensify what you’ve written,” she said. “Get to the nucleus. The goal is to match language to emotion so we’re going to get rid of all the words that get in the way of that.”
After a few more minutes mangling syntax and making Strunk and White roll in their graves, the students put their poems down and looked across the table at one another. One by one, each read his or her spontaneous and variegated work aloud. An exercise that began with images that could have plausibly been plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting had, in two moves, evolved into a novel abstraction of that starting place. The students’ poems had put Platonic ideals, poetic conceits and language itself before a funhouse mirror, and the results were creative writing indeed.
Below are several samples of more traditional, but no less inspired, student pieces.
In “Dark Secret,” Charlotte S. ’17 paints a blackly vivid picture of one woman’s train ride, along straight rails through pretty country and down twisted tracks into the depths of her own mind.
“The wind whips my hair in front of my face as I wait on the platform. I can see dark clouds roiling and tumbling over each other in the distance, bringing the promise of rain closer and closer. The air feels charged, and I sense something within in me rise up to meet those clouds. Within me, there is a storm approaching.”
Following strict instructions to use no adverbs ending in –ly and to evoke feeling without using the signposts of plot, sophomore Danny F. penned a delightful afterlife monologue one could imagine rising from the cold brain of Holden Caulfield, experiencing a death every bit as awkward as the life that preceded it. Having met his end running a cross-country race in an ensemble he didn’t care for, the narrator explains:
“I’m dead. … It happened about a year ago. I was running in a cross-country race in one of those ridiculous, uncomfortable uniforms when I had a little bit of trouble breathing. Then a lot of trouble breathing. Then no breathing. … I hated every second wearing that uniform when I was alive. Now imagine how it felt when I figured out I was still wearing it as a ghost. … Do you have any idea how many people have used these uniforms? Eight people. … Eight years of sweat, dirt, hair, stains and who knows what else.”