There are a couple of directions you might follow in choosing readings for this class. As I mentioned in the welcome video and the writing project video, you might be thinking about writing an archetypal example in the form and style of an author whose life you want to emulate. In that case, choose readings by that author. Read as much of their work as you can. Try to inhabit the creative space of their output, to see how those works might impact and inspire you to move forward as a creative writer.
Or, you might just be interested in a more general way about careers in the creative arts—whether or not you want to be a professional writer. Accordingly, the works on the reading list below are focused on creative careers. So, even if you plan your writing project to be a creative work inspired by your favourite author, please also read something from the list below. I do want you to read at least one book focused on the creative professions. There’s a good reason for this request: most writers don’t start out with writing as their main gig. Even highly successful, commercially profitable authors often started out in some other area and often continue to do a variety of professional activities. The imagined writing life—where you sit in a room by yourself and write all day—is not typically what writers do. Most are out in the world doing something that inspires their writing. Sometimes they teach, or run a business, or do speaking and consulting. For me personally, as a clinical consultant in mental health and trauma, much of my writing is inspired and informed by that professional work. That’s not an uncommon scenario. Creative professionals often undertake other kinds of work that on the surface does not seem like creative work but which deeply informs the creative work, giving it context and shape.
That’s what these books are about: the creative life and what it might look like. And so, when you read for this class, I encourage you to inhabit that open landscape of possibility. The creative life is often unpredictable; it does not typically consist of just writing but instead is cobbled together from several things. This is good: it keeps us in the world, keeps us connected to other people and to the wider questions of humanity.
I’d like your reading for this class to be focused on helping you understand or explore what a creative career might look like in the world today. That’s my goal. So, this week, start with the reading list below. Do some googling. Look up these titles, see which ones call to you. As the semester rolls along, read as many of these books as you can (and keep reading, of course, after the semester). If you get stuck, if you’re not sure, if you’re bewildered, if you look at the list and you have no idea where to start: reach out. I’m happy to talk it through with you, to help you get to the place where you find useful, helpful reading for this class.
The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin (2020)
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott (1995)
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath (2007)
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2014)
Details and Possible Content
This project is focused on your responses to the reading you have been doing. What has been interesting to you? What has made you think, or feel? And, since you are a unique person, your responses will be unique to you. There are no right answers or secret criteria here. You are not making an argument in this project, not passing along some version of the main points of what you read. No, you are simply reading, absorbing, reflecting, and then writing. In that order. The essence of what you write about in this project is your reflections on the reading.
I am not asking you to prove that you’ve read anything. Instead – and again, just to make this really clear – I’m asking you to reflect on your reading. Here are some examples of the kinds of things you might reflect upon:
- Why did you choose this particular reading?
- How does this reading make you feel?
- What metaphors or symbols stand out for you, and why?
- Does the reading remind you of something inside yourself? What? And how?
- What does this reading teach you about your life?
- Why do you react to the reading in the way that you do?
- What do these reactions tell you about yourself?
- How might you use the knowledge or insights from your reading to grow as a person or to improve and deepen your relationships with others?
These are just examples. They are not intended to be prescriptive or compulsory. You will learn your own thing, in your own way. But let’s hope that you’ve learned something from your reading. The reading assignment is to write about your reflections (again, in case you missed it the two other times).
Do not write an academic essay! If you do, I will send it back and politely ask you to resubmit the reading assignment. No essays. No five-paragraph boilerplate. No thesis statements. No bibliography. No statements to the effect that you “will demonstrate in this essay”, or that “further, this shows that”, or “in conclusion.” Nope. You have probably learned to write slightly different versions of the exact same essay, over and over again, in your educational journey. If that’s the case, then this assignment will perhaps be anxiety-provoking. I’m asking you to abandon a particular writing skill – traditional essay-writing – and instead try something that might be completely new.
What to write instead of an academic essay? If you’ve been following the weekly readings, and if you’ve been reading a book, you will have noticed that you don’t see a lot of essay-writing in these readings. You don’t see thesis statements and concluding paragraphs and weasely academic language. Instead, what you see is storytelling. Good writing tells a story – fictional or nonfictional or some strange blend. And the stories we are most drawn to? What do they do? They teach us about ourselves. That’s why we’re drawn to them.
Don’t summarize your reading, or do a book report, or an essay based on what you think I want to hear. This assignment is about you, and your reactions to what you read, and how those reactions percolate around inside you until you know just a bit more about yourself and the world. This is a complex, deep, and somewhat mysterious process that sometimes goes by the name creativity.
This is a straightforward project. And yet, many people struggle with it because I am not telling you exactly what to do. Instead, I am suggesting a direction you might go (reading) and I am encouraging you to follow it wherever it may lead. I don’t know where it will lead; neither do you. In the study of creativity there’s a hifalutin’ word for this process: the liminal space, or liminal zone. Or liminality. The area of uncertainty, ambiguity, and perhaps even disorientation. The place of edges and peering over them.
The description of this assignment is supposed to be vague. That’s the point. All the assignments are going to be like this. It’s your path, your creative journey. You need to follow it (or not) to where it takes you.
How long should it be? Good question. How long do you think? If you spend some time reading, and you learn something really interesting – maybe about yourself, or your relationship with the world – how many words would it take you to write down your reflections about what you’ve learned and what they mean? More than a hundred? For sure. Five hundred? More, probably. More than a thousand? Probably. Ten thousand? Maybe not that much. See how it goes.
I get a lot of assignments that are 1004 words long, or 1002, 1008, or 1033. You get the idea: just over the edge of what I’ve specified as the minimum. Please don’t do that. Write until you’ve reached the point that you’ve said all you need to say. It’s impossible to specify in advance how long that should be – and equally impossible to do it well the night before it’s due. If you rush through this assignment, writing madly at 88 miles per hour to get it submitted before the clock tower signals 10:04 and you’re outta time (you get that pop culture reference, right?), then you will probably not be happy with the result. Instead, take your time. Write this assignment over the course of a week or two, in several shorter writing sessions of maybe an hour each. That should do it.
Storytelling – whether you are writing about your life, or your readings, or the maintenance you do on your motorcycle – is as varied as writers. The more of them that you read (writers as well as stories), the more you will get glimpses of what you could do. It won’t help for me to specify in great detail what the form of your project should be. The more formulaic this project is, the less creative you will be. Your job is to think about how you might create something on your own, and do it. This might be very hard. Try hard – and try not to spend time figuring out what I might want. This assignment is not for me; it’s your creativity, and it’s for you. Remember that if you can.
If you get stuck with this assignment, feel free to reach out to ask questions. But really, getting stuck is part of the process. Getting unstuck is how you activate your creativity.
The reading project is worth 40 percent of your grade and is provisionally due at the end of week 4.
Writing about reading is a colossal genre with ancient roots. The conversation between readers and writers is one of the most robust and persistent aspects of literature. Sometimes the responses of readers are philosophical and complex (such as Alberto Manguel's response to Walter Benjamin's ruminations on unpacking his library); often they are interwoven with cultural and personal themes (such as Annelie Chen's reflections on Walter Deakin's book about swimming); and sometimes they explore the resonance of personal themes in the writing process (such as Ta-Nehisi Coates' Why I'm Writing Captain America — and why it scares the hell out of me). I don't expect you to craft narratives that are equivalent to these examples, which are written by highly skilled professional authors (Anelise Chen is an accomplished author, essayist, and writing instructor at Columbia University; Alberto Manguel is one of the most renowned and respected authors of our time; and Ta-Nehisi Coates is an influential cultural commentator and author). But we want our aims as writers to be aspirational, right? So, let's take encouragement from the great Arthur Ashe: start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. Read the examples, reflect on what you might do, and go from there.
A Note of Caution
You can write about anything you want. But please consider that any subject that is challenging for you to talk about openly (such as personal trauma) is a subject you should probably not write about — especially on a public platform such as this. On the other hand, powerful personal experiences often provide excellent source material for writing, so it may be difficult for you to decide what to do. First, please use your judgment about how best to keep yourself emotionally safe within and beyond the classroom. Second, please discuss your plans (or your concerns) with me if you decide to write about personal or provocative subjects. In particular, be cautious of subjects involving violence, abuse, trauma, death, mental illness, and related themes (whether they happened to you, happened to someone else, or are imagined). These subjects reliably activate strong emotions and are often unsafe if not handled properly. While no subject is absolutely off-limits in this class, there are many subjects for which there is a risk of harm to you, to me, to others in the class, or to our shared communities. We must be respectful and careful of ourselves and our relationships with others. Please ask me for guidance if you are uncertain.