Creativity is fundamental to critical thinking, yet creative work is intellectually and institutionally devalued in schools, from K–12 to higher education. In universities in particular, creative writing is often positioned as subordinate to peer-reviewed scholarly writing. Even for cultural production scholars, creative writing often does not fulfill departmental publishing requirements for tenure.
As a creative writer in the academy, however, I have found that tapping into the creative elements of my academic work strengthens my teaching and scholarship. Below are some tips to help you incorporate creative writing into your scholarly work. I draw from my own practice as well as the practice of Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes, who recently spoke with my students about her debut poetry collection The Inheritance of Haunting.
Poetry as practice
The first time I wrote poetry in a classroom was as an undergraduate in Poetry for the People (P4P), a program founded by June Jordan at UC Berkeley in 1991. Poetry was central to Jordan’s Black feminist pedagogy, particularly in the public university system, as Alexis Pauline Gumbs explains in “Nobody Mean More.” The way P4P taught writing—through poetry as practice and theory—transformed my sense of self, knowing, and learning.
Consider using poetry in your own work to facilitate your thinking. For example, throughout graduate school, I kept a document titled “dissertation poems” where I processed scholarly ideas in the form of poetry.
Creative writing in the classroom
When Rhodes visited my class, she had my students do a creative writing activity. My students were not surprised. I regularly facilitate in-class writing exercises, many of which require students to write poetically. In fact, one class put together a zine produced from these exercises that we then shared with the campus community.
Even a short creative writing activity can profoundly deepen class discussions, as well as the relationship between students, because it links the personal and the political. “Creative writing in the social science classroom has been a tool for students to explore autotheory, and to encounter and attempt forms of expression not often considered legitimate as theory,” affirms Rhodes. Since my courses revolve around a wide range of literary genres, writing creatively also deepens students’ understanding of form and how it relates to content, as well as the process of making (and unmaking) meaning.
At the beginning of class, try having your students write list poems based on the reading (see “Free Flight” by June Jordan for an example of a list poem). Consider listing keywords, questions, or common themes across texts. You can then use those list poems as a way into a class discussion about the readings and themes of the day.
Get creative with form
Communicating original ideas also necessitates creativity. Sometimes we need comma splices, fragments, and run-on sentences to disrupt dominant discourses and their epistemological underpinnings.
“Getting outside of traditional structures for grammar and the articulation of knowledge opens room for me to think differently, to introduce epistemological difference into and against norms for scholarly writing,” declares Rhodes, “When I do this, it is in the wake of so many feminist, queer, and decolonial writer-thinkers before me.”
Creative writing facilitates narration
Even the most analytical of academic texts is still, essentially, a narrative. Indeed, the most compelling academic texts make use of narrative and storytelling techniques.
When thinking through your own writing practice, you may already consult resources like Eric Hayot’s The Elements of Academic Style, which addresses writing productivity as well as techniques. However, I also suggest reading the work of scholars who engage different and multiple—even experimental—genres and, in doing so, push disciplinary boundaries and expand academic writing conventions. Some great options include Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s M Archive, M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing (which Gumbs’s book is based on), and Omni Osun Joni L. Jones, Lisa L. Moore, and Sharon Bridgforth’s Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic.
One easy way to get more creative with your writing is to write in stream of conscious before or after working on your article, book, or other academic writing project.
As these examples show, coming up with and communicating original ideas, which is the basis of good scholarship, necessitates creativity. So why not take a more creative approach to academic writing, in addition to other important tactics like outlining and revision?