What is Creative Writing? Three Vignettes

By Katherine J. Barrett


"What is creative writing?" Miss Smith asked my wide-eyed grade six class. This was back in the '70s and Miss Smith wore a psychedelic floral print and stood, flamingo-like, one knee perched on the desk of a front-row student. She was not our regular teacher but swooped in once a week to discuss simile, sonnets and rhyme. With Miss Smith, I learned to write compositions of vastly different style and process than my expository term-projects on fruit bats or Chile.

Miss Smith valued expression over fact, an inventive turn of phrase over grammatical accuracy. But she set parameters: expression and invention shall not be unbridled. One brave student read his story to the class. His plot swirled every which way, rivalling Miss Smith's dress for wildness and lack of form. It ended with the clincher: "He woke up and it was all a dream." Miss Smith showed no mercy. I can hear her now, decades after that class ended: Never, ever, write a story as dream. Structure, people, we need structure.

What is creative writing? According to Miss Smith, it is expressive writing with backbone.


Tenth floor, government office tower, city center. I'm enclosed by half-walls, puce-coloured screens to delineate me from hundreds of colleagues clicking away in their own cubicles. It's just after lunch and I have a report due by day's end, a report I'll then send through three layers of bureaucracy for sign-off.

I want to begin by describing our team: "With training in civil engineering and five years as a beat cop, Janice could easily identify areas...." No, strike that. "It was found that...."

I grab a coffee and plod further into my report. "Record snowfalls during the first week of March seized Ottawa's airport and shut down our interviews...." Delete that line too, especially the verb seized. "Upon completion of all interviews...."

By five o'clock my report lacked all particularity, any hint of agency or circumstance. It was, in other words, ready for sign-off. 

What is creative writing? All that technical, bureaucratic and academic writing is not. Creative writing uses character, setting and rich, graphic language to create an image or tell a story.


"They're writing a feature on safe sex. I was hoping you could help them out."

Gavin walks me through the offices of Cape Town's newest magazine, Live. From outside, the building is gritty urban but inside, this space says cosmopolitan cool: cappuccino, abstract art, and Cape Town's entire selection of newspapers hot off the press. Gavin introduces me to two writers, women in their early twenties. Live is researched, edited and designed by Cape Town's youth. Mentors like me provide direction if necessary, but youth do all the heavy lifting.

But what might I contribute to an article on safe sex? Not information. Live writers know far better than I how to talk to youth about sex. Not contacts. The writers have already conducted a series of fascinating interviews.

I can, however, address the question: What is creative writing? Can journalism be creative?

We scan the interview notes and first drafts of the article. "What did this guy look like?" I ask. "Tell me about his body language. Tell me about the clinic where you met him. What, exactly, did he say? Can you write your conversation as dialogue?"

Together, we bring the interviewees and their surroundings to life, make them lift from the page, make them palpable and memorable.

What is creative writing? Through small but relevant details — words, sounds, smells, gestures — creative writing evokes a much larger story and allows readers to draw a larger message. Creative writing doesn't tell, it shows. 

Read more about Katherine J. Barrett, or read her short story Resillience. 

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