An argument for creative writing in a sea of journalism

[Full disclosure: I meant to go more deeply into Terry Tempest Williams’ talk than I did in this essay. I went into thoughts on the slow death of creative writing and those that are helping to kill it. The next essay will cover her talk in more depth.]

If you’ve read my blog, my bio, or know me at all as a person, you know that Terry Tempest Williams is one of my favorite writers. I first read Refuge my sophomore year of college and was immediately smitten. Williams writes with profound grace and humility about not only the natural world, but also humanity’s deep connection to it.

What I love most about Williams is her approachability. She teaches, and leads, and speaks constantly at environmental advocacy events. She has a strong activism presence on social media and works closely with so many other artists, scientists and environmental journalists. She is not preaching from a pedestal, but rather speaks from an intrinsic connection to her community.

So when she came to Boulder to speak on behalf of her new book and public lands, you better believe that I was there, front and center.

The Boulder Book Store hosted her, and she spoke at the Canyon Theater in the Boulder Public Library. I arrived half an hour early and noticed immediately that I was the only person under the age 40. Many of the people gathered were even older, in their 50s and 60s, and the vast majority were women.

The death of the written word among my generation (I’m 23) was a constant muttering among the students and professors in my undergraduate writing classes. It wasn’t necessarily a criticism, but more of a solemn observation. Literary magazine sales are on the decline, most news outlets are turning toward the digital and e-readers are becoming ever more popular. While every seat in the hundred-person Canyon Theater was sold out, it was heart breaking to look into the crowd and see only a handful of young faces.

I belong to an environmental journalism program at the University of Colorado Boulder and noticed that not a single other student from the program attended her talk, nor did any professors that I could tell, despite the fact that Williams focused on the BLM, our National Parks and the problems we are facing in the fight for our public lands in the west (all topics incredibly relevant to our program and our University). The department didn’t send out a single email about the event and upon further investigation I found that most students didn’t even know who Williams was, despite her prominence in the environmental movement.

What I’m noticing is a lack of community within our program and perhaps within the writing culture of my generation. We know what topic we want to cover, we know maybe one other writer covering that topic, and the flow of artistic community seems to stop there. What about film makers, podcasts, poets, photographers, memoirists, musicians, sculptors, painters, all of the other artists covering the topics you are interested in? Why stop at just journalism?

Williams spoke of other scientists, activists, writers, painters, musicians, all kinds of individuals pursuing environmental advocacy. I had a list of at least 10 new people I needed to look up and check out when I got home. And she listed off at least 10 others that I already knew. I began to see how we need these connections within the entire community if we want to make a difference and keep from going completely insane.

We don’t have time in our short lives to figure out whose creative outlet is doing the most good for other people and the planet. We don’t have time to argue about it either. What we do have time for is giving support and respect for all of the various forms of expression and recognizing that they all have equal values in their own way.

But the professors in my program have done an excellent job of putting down creative literature and all other forms of writing that aren’t strictly journalism. In my first semester of the program, I was a ‘research assistant’ (I put this in quotes as they never actually had me research anything at all) for the Center for Environmental Journalism. They asked if I would be comfortable assisting with a small online journal that the students ran and I said absolutely, in fact I helped with a literary journal at the University of Pittsburgh during my senior year that functioned very similarly.

“Yes,” one of them said to me, “But this is journalism. Not a bunch of fluffy crap.”

In one comment, I was told that my last four years of creative pursuits, some of my favorite people in this life, and the ways in which I hoped to change the world, were just a bunch of ‘fluffy crap.’

Had this been the opinion of one man, one professor, I probably would have gotten over it. But as I learned over the next year, it was the opinion of much of the department. That literature was nice and all, but it wasn’t going to change the world. But journalism! Now that’s real writing, with weight and importance!

I was shocked to learn that this was the mindset of my department and of many of the students in the program. It was because of prosaic poets and writers like Terry Tempest Williams, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, Joseph Wood Krutch, Mary Oliver, Maxine Kumin, Aldo Leopold and so many more, that I became an environmentalist. It was because of these writers that I too wanted to put my pen to paper and tell the world of the importance of wilderness.

This program has done its best to dismiss creative writing as somehow less valuable. And while I understand that this is a journalism program and its intent is to teach outstanding journalism practices, the professors and administration seem to think this must come at the expense of all other arts and forms of storytelling. That journalism cannot succeed until creative writing is first made to seem entirely valueless.

This came as perhaps the greatest disappointment. At a time when we must do everything we can to reinforce the importance of arts and humanities within our society, we are allowing empty attacks and belittlement from one another, in our own community, to crumble our foundation as a valuable institution.

Williams opened her talk by thanking a handful of individuals, the most prominent being Jim (James) Balog, the founder and president of Earth Vision Institute and Extreme Ice Survey. Balog may be most known for his feature in the award winning 2012 documentary, Chasing Ice, which covered the effects of climate change through video and photography of the world’s melting glaciers.

Williams spoke of how her father, a devout Republican, did not believe in climate change until he saw this film and saw the videos and photographs Balog took. William’s father then held a screening of the film, trying to convert his friends who also did not believe.

Balog began this endeavor on assignment with National Geographic, which is to say, a journalism assignment. And despite the mantra that my program has delivered that we do not need creative writing to be successful journalists, Balog was nevertheless present for William’s talk, showing his respect for crafts other than his own. (The real kicker is that he also happens to be a close friend of the professor that told me literary magazines were full of fluffy crap.)

A study from Northwestern University revealed that when people had their beliefs challenged by facts, they held even more firmly to those beliefs, despite being presented with factual information to the contrary. Researchers believe this stems from the unpleasantness of cognitive dissonance, which is the feeling we experience when faced with conflicting ideas.

We covered this very study in a science writing course I took last fall, in which the professor left us with the question, “If this is the case, then what are we to do as journalists?”

Isn’t it obvious? We need to embrace literature and art as creative equals in this endeavor to make the world a better place. Clearly the hard facts and figures of traditional journalism aren’t enough.

The creative arts allow us to experience emotions for place we may have never been to, and may never get to see. And we can only care for what we feel attached to. We need creative writing to soften that part of us that refuses to let go of our beliefs, so that we might be able to accept the difficult truths of journalism that we so badly want to deny.

There are holes within creative writing and there are holes in journalism. No art form can completely fill us. We need as many disciplines as possible to fill in the missing pieces. This program is doing its students a massive disservice by not including at the very least respect for other art forms.

What I am thankfully learning is that my program does not speak for journalists and journalism as a whole. Through Balog’s unspoken support as well as the contribution of other creative journalists like Michael Pollan and Sandra Steingraber, it has become apparent to me that this belittlement of other writers’ interests, artistic expressions and passions, is a small view held by a few small men.

If you cannot, as a journalist, sit down and find equal value in a poem, a memoir, a creative essay, some form of writing other than your own, you are perhaps not a very good journalist. And possibly more deeply, not a very good person.

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