In my time as a writing consultant, I’ve worked with students on personal statements, resumes, and academic essays on an imaginative variety of subject matters, but I almost never consult on any kind of creative writing. On the rare occasions that I have worked with creative writing assignments, the students were always more concerned with sentence-level issues than anything else. As a fiction writer myself, as someone who’s spent a frankly ridiculous amount of time studying and analysing theme and plot structure and narrative and who loves nothing more than half a chance to talk about it, I’ve always found this a bit disheartening. After all, non-judgmental outside perspectives on one’s work is a need that’s hardly exclusive to the academic sphere. Surely the same benefits that writing centers offer to academic writers would be useful to creative writers as well.
Consider the ideal of the solitary writer. Writing as a social practice is a universal tenant of writing centers, as a quintessential element of the writing center’s purpose is to relieve the isolationism the act of writing seems to engender, to reassure students that they are not expected to shoulder the burden of producing genius alone. We often talk about debunking the solitary writer myth, but this discussion usually only concerns academic writing. In my experience, nowhere is the idea of the solitary writer more prevalent than in the creative writing sphere. The popular idea of a creative writer is a creature not unlike a hermit crab, who retreats into a cave-like space for months at a time and emerges clutching a completed draft, polished and sparkling.
Which is not to say that this idea has no basis in reality whatsoever, as writers are a notoriously asocial species. I don’t wish to speak for anyone else, and my experience comes with the caveat that I’ve only ever seriously pursued fiction writing. But, coming from this experience, even workshops (or classes structured as such) can feel more like a command performance than anything else, in spite of how those situations are meant to focus on collaboration. Complete drafts are expected before your work can be reviewed by your peers; rarely is any time devoted just to the act of writing or talking about writing.
This is where a writing center consultation could be especially beneficial, since the consultation can provide a much less formal setting to voice an undeveloped idea. There the writer could receive feedback while they¹ are still in the process of completing a draft, or before they begin, without the pressure of a poor grade or negative judgment from their peers. Because all writing makes the writer vulnerable, but creative writing feels especially intimate, and many writers may choose to keep their work private out of fear that their peers will react harshly to something so deeply personal. In fact, it seems natural to infer that this is part of the reason more creative writers don’t come to writing centers. If exposing your personal work to peers is daunting, exposing it to a virtual stranger would be terrifying.
But in addition to that, the writing center is, however intentionally, presented as a space for academic writing. You can see this just from where writing centers are most often promoted: academic classroom environments, often beginner-level, writing-heavy courses. More recently, writing centers have also become a place to work on professional documents, such as resumes and personal statements. But the underlying assumption is still that the writing center is a place for argument papers, for research, and for scholarly endeavors, not creative writing. Perhaps a creative writer would even assume that the writing center consultant is not prepared to offer constructive criticism beyond simple grammar and mechanics. And perhaps they wouldn’t be entirely wrong, as the constant stream of literary analysis and application essays prepares us for little else. But this is an issue that could be directly addressed, not a problem with the idea itself.
I think that consultants would find that, while the minutiae of a creative writing consultation would be different, as you’d be discussing things like theme and plot structure rather than thesis statements and paragraph organization, the principles are largely the same. The consultant would still be there to listen to the writer’s ideas and concerns, and to offer their own reflections and suggestions; their role would still be encapsulated in the phrase, “As a reader, I feel that…”
So bring me your darlings. I promise I won’t murder them.
I believe in a singular “they.”
Mara Wagnon is a senior Rhetoric and Writing undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. She has been working at the UT University Writing Center for about a year as an undergraduate Writing Consultant and also as a copyeditor for Praxis. Her interests include creative writing of all forms, but most especially fiction, and helping writers of all levels improve their work. She hopes to someday maybe write books for a living.