An Open Letter to the 3 Students Who Accidentally Came to My Creative Writing Class

by guest writer Leanne Simpson, Writing Instructor, Ryerson Student Learning Support

Dear Students,

There was an audible murmur when you arrived halfway through our around-the-room introductions, plopped yourself down on lime green chairs, and announced that you were here to learn how to write the perfect essay.

“Actually,” offered one of our more avid writers, “This is creative writing. Like stories and poems and stuff.”

I was not offended by the horror that sprang across your face. Instead, I was wondering when the creative and academic writing process had diverged so far that a simple 6-word story was more daunting than a 25-page report.

“You’re not in the wrong place,” I said, tossing a coloured marker perilously close to your face. “Creative writing and academic writing are like high school sweethearts – you might think one has outgrown the other, but even after the direct relationship ends, they continue to influence each other through the writing process. Creative writing makes you a better academic writer, and vice versa.”

I silently vowed that I would get a guest speaker to teach similes and metaphors next time.

In my first year at the University of Toronto, I had a professor who would arrange a half hour meeting before our midterms and exams. The entire class would cram themselves into a Starbucks, armed with notepad and pen, and we would free write for 15 minutes. The only rule was that you weren’t allowed to write about the course material – you had to focus on expressive, emotional writing. This meant journaling, creating maps of your identity, and choosing meditation over rumination.

Four years later, and I was teaching test anxiety workshops for The Writing Centre alongside my favourite mentor. When I started my Master’s degree at Ryerson, it was my first opportunity to design my own curriculum as a writing instructor, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

On our first day of class, I asked my students to describe the hardest part of writing, and unsurprisingly, the overwhelming answer was “getting started.” I explained that if we associate the writing process with anxious emotions, it becomes something we avoid instead of embrace. By using creative writing either as a warm-up or as an artistic end, other forms of writing become increasingly friendly. It is also an easier, more entertaining ritual to incorporate into our lives. Many of the best writers find time to scribble something down every day.

Another correlation between academic and creative writing comes from the importance of voice. When asked to write persuasively, many students adopt an unfamiliar voice in argumentative essays. The act of writing creatively is itself a persuasive exercise; the development of an expressive, individual tone persuades the reader to care. So far, the strongest writing that has come from my class came from our explorations in non-fiction, because everyone finally had a chance to write naturally. There’s a certain temptation to thesaurus-bomb a piece in order to sound more legitimate as a writer. I tell my creative writing students exactly what I tell my academic students – your own words are always good enough.

Halfway through the class, the girl who wanted to learn about thesis statements is writing a 6-word story about Kim Kardashian, while the quiet engineer beside me is sharing otherworldly stories he’s written in a journal. In our class, creative writing has a fluid definition. While each week has a formal theme, we take an informal approach to writing our hearts out (sometimes our six word stories have far more than six words). The only real purpose is to get started, get excited, and follow the words wherever they take us.

So, students, thank you for coming – and coming back the next week, too. Thank you for sharing your creations and fake-laughing at my terrible jokes. Thank you for teaching me about Kim Kardashian. Thank you for writing an Eminem haiku that was all about spaghetti. Thank you for listening as intently as you write. We might be writing for different reasons, but that’s okay. Creative writing is generally not a means to an end – it’s an end in itself.


Leanne Simpson

PS If you’d like to join in, we will be in SLC453 every Tuesday from 3-5 pm. Learn more about what Student Learning Support has to offer.

PPS Check out some of the stuff we’ve been doing!

Writing on Writing, by Jennifer Elliott (Creative Writing Group Member Extraordinaire)

For a novice writer, there’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page. The words and ideas are there, swirling around in your head, but turning the creative mental jumble into a cohesive story or poem is a whole other kettle of fish. It’s tempting to close that Word document, open up Youtube and say, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’. But tomorrow turns into next week, next week into next month, and by the end of a year you’re an expert on cat videos but you’ve got nothing written (except for a title you’ve changed 34 times).

Taking that first plunge is scary. But it’s worth it. A lot of what you write at first will make you want to tear your hair out and body slam the next person who asks ‘So, how’s that story coming?’ Relax. Give it a couple weeks, maybe even a couple months. You may come back to it and find that ‘crappy story’ has grown potential over time. Obviously you don’t know what you don’t know, but sometimes you don’t know what you do know… until you know it. There are good, even great ideas hidden in that initial draft, and even better ideas buried somewhere in the recesses of your brain. Writing allows you to exorcise your doubts and make room for those ideas to bubble to the surface.