Creative Writing Was My Ticket to the Good Life…Until I Tried It

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In the fall of 2015, I took my first creative writing class in my first semester at Pacific University, Oregon.  After two years at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Washington and before transferring to Pacific with the most generic Associate of Arts degree possible, I still hadn’t the faintest idea of what I wanted to do with my life, let alone what I wanted to major in.  I came here to play baseball and let the chips of life fall where they may, but I will leave with a degree and a renewed outlook on my purpose as a citizen of society.

All I knew was I wanted to make money, and a lot of it, in any legal way I could. Money may not be able to directly buy happiness, but it can sure help the process, especially in paying back the people who are responsible for where I am today.  I frequented websites that discussed the highest paying jobs in America and researched how the wealthiest of the wealthy came to be where they are today.  It all seemed to be the same, my options were to design innovative technology or go into healthcare.  The first is just beyond me; I can’t even begin to fathom computer code or how video games are made or anything.  The second I couldn’t afford the schooling for; I can barely afford two years of education at Pacific, even with a generous scholarship.  I thought about engineering, but the stress level of taking increasingly difficult math classes seemed to rise exponentially every year I was in school.  I thought about business, to go right at the heart of money, but I didn’t want to be stuck in a cubicle from nine to five every day and have to fight traffic for an hour just to drive fifteen miles home.  So as I was perusing the degrees Pacific had to offer, trying to figure out life so my parents would get off my back, my eyes settled on Creative Writing.

I thought about how I used to write stories back in elementary school and figured it would be fun to do that for a living.  I read about how Christopher Paolini published Eragon at age 19 and I discovered that the net worth of J.K. Rowling is over one billion.  I was sold.  It was the perfect fit and my new motto became, “All it takes is one good book.”  One good book and I’ll never have to work again, how hard could it be?  Boy, what little did I know.

First off, it isn’t easy to write a great story.  I didn’t know what to expect going into the first creative writing class of my life.  It was a fiction class, and my original conception of fiction stories was that they were completely made up and based purely on the imaginations of the authors.  To an extent they are, but inspiration can come from the very real experiences of the author and extensive research goes into a lot of novels.  I was also unaware that there are certain structures and particular techniques that are utilized in fiction writing and are, in fact, the reason why people enjoy reading fiction in the first place.  I learned all this very quickly as I consistently turned in subpar work.  It wasn’t that I was getting bad grades, which was because the only piece that was graded for its fictional qualities was essentially our final story, it was that when I read my own work aloud to myself, it was boring and predictable.  My writing has improved since then, and I now understand the tangible difficulty that creative writing poses.

Second off, the further through the semester I persisted, the more and more I listened to people talk about how writing is a financially unstable career path.  They spoke about how writers slave away, putting in so much work, time, and effort into their craft with less than substantial recognition and payoff in the end.  Pairing this newfound information with the discovery that creative writing is not an easy feat, I realized why, out of all the aspiring writers taking classes at schools across the globe, there are only a few who find as much success as Stephen King.  My false image of writing was shattered by truth, and I was lost in a world I didn’t belong in.  I wanted to make money, enough to satisfy my free will in every way it desired, and I realized that I would probably never experience literary success to that degree.  Then Kim van Alkemade saved me.

In that first fiction writing class, we were required to attend at least two author readings.  I attended three, one of which was van Alkemade’s for Orphan #8 on the Pacific University campus.  The day of her reading, she visited my class because she was good friends with my professor.  I don’t remember the question and I only remember part of her answer, but with one statement she completely changed my view of what writing is.  All she said was, “We don’t write to get published.”  At first I disagreed.  I thought that was the only reason authors write.  Why would a writer create something and not try to make money off it?  To get paid to do what they love seemed to be an author’s dream come true to me, so I disregarded her words.  But they kept eating at me and I couldn’t stop thinking about them.  Why would she say such a thing?  So I thought about it with more depth and from different perspectives, and I discovered multiple reasons why somebody would write that had nothing to do with money and among others, the motive that I most closely related to was that of the expression of ideas.

Since I’ve started the journey to a degree in creative writing, I’ve found that not only do I think more often and in more depth about real world issues, I can also discuss these issues and think through each of them when formulating my own opinion about a person or an event or an idea.  Whatever it may be, I am able to express my opinions to my parents, friends, and fellow students in order to argue my stance without fear.  I rarely expressed my opinions throughout high school and my first years of college, even though I had plenty to say.  Writing out my ideas and thoughts in stories and poems has allowed me to also verbally discuss them, something I wasn’t capable of doing before Kim van Alkemade and Pacific University.

While I do still have a burning desire to be published and financially secure, I intend to continue to write regardless of the outcome.  I think putting my own ideas onto paper, whether it be through fiction, essays, or whatever form of writing, and sharing them with the world is a worthy cause because who knows, maybe someday somebody with substantial influence will read my work and take action.  Something I write could revolutionize an industry, change the intentions of a criminal, or prevent the suicide of a teenager.  If I can impact the lives of people in such dramatic ways as those with my writing, then it is fully worth the toil, regardless of monetary outcome.

By: Matthew Jensen

Learning to Relish Research with Kim van Alkemade


As writers, we sometimes get caught up in the idea that we are only being productive if we are, well, writing. But there are large parts of the creative process that are just as important as putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) that should also be given their due. Last September, I was fortunate enough to attend a craft talk by author Kim van Alkemade, who published her debut historical fiction novel, Orphan #8, in August of 2015. On the docket for discussion: the ins and outs of researching.

First of all, van Alkemade stressed that research is not a tedious, dimly-lit backroom affair. It is a vibrant, engaging process meant to enliven your creative energies—not squash them. So to be a successful researcher, the first things you need to get rid of are any preconceived ideas or traumatic memories from those high school history projects that had you banging your head against a wall. Try looking at research as idea generation, a way to spark new ideas that would otherwise never have crossed your mind..

Once you’ve exorcised the ghosts of past research experiences, van Alkemade stresses that research must be fluid. You may go in looking for one thing, and come out with something completely different. Rather than brushing new ideas off as rabbit trails, she encourages writers to at least jot these digressions down for later. If you’re looking up the fauna of a particular region for one story, and end up at a website about the aesthetics of lamps that sparks another idea, embrace it! Keep track of your wanderings because you never know when something will be useful down the line. Tying into this fluidity of research, she also recommends something a bit counterintuitive: taking bad notes.

Van Alkemade’s example of bad note-taking working in favor of the creative process was drawn from her own work. In fact, she discovered the idea for her book, Orphan #8, completely by accident while researching the orphanage where her grandfather and great uncle grew up. She had gone in with the aim of writing a nonfiction piece about her family history, but her research led her elsewhere. While sifting through the expenditure records she came across an entry about wigs ordered for Jewish orphans who were involved in medical experiments. She jotted down the information—in poor handwriting—and moved on, thinking nothing of it at the time. When she rediscovered her note, enough of the details had faded that she only vaguely recollected the names of the people involved, but the makings of a story formed in her head. Instead of renewing her research about these specific people, though, she wrote while inspiration struck, allowing herself to create around the facts she recalled and filling in gaps with her imagination.

After getting a solid start on a piece, van Alkemade also encourages writers to overcome their fear of archives. Formal research institutions, museums, libraries, and historical societies can all be helpful, depending on your work’s specific focus. She also recommends other techniques, including reading psychology, philosophy or medical books from the period you are writing about and looking at pictures from that time (if you’re tackling something historical). If you have a specific location in mind for a piece, visit it to soak in details that are only available through direct contact. Although formal research institutions and archives are certainly an invaluable resource, they should not be the only things that spring to mind. Research can be, well, just about anything, so don’t discount modern tools like the internet. A trip through videos on YouTube can be just as helpful as a jaunt through a library—if you go in with a goal.

Van Alkemade’s next step in researching is vital: stopping. Van Alkemade admits that when research becomes engaging and dynamic, it can also become addictive or distracting, standing in the way of your writing instead of augmenting it. Rather than getting bogged down in the exact details of her main character’s factual life while writing Orphan #8, she made up what she couldn’t remember and formed her own unique character. Her main character was born in the US, while the real woman she was based on was born in Austria. Her character went to school in New York, the real woman when to Cornell. Van Alkemade was glad she didn’t remember the specifics. If she had, the book might never have been written, overrun instead by overly-meticulous facts that would have inhibited van Alkemade from running with her own fictional story.

Of course, once she had created a firm understanding of her character and formed the basic plot for her novel, the real research began—this time with a focused time period to examine and reproduce. This is where research should become a bit less fluid. Although marking down random ideas and inspirations you might run across is important during the idea generation phase of writing, it is equally important to stay on task if you are looking for a very particular fact for a story or novel that is already complete and in the accuracy-ensuring phase of production.

Although some of van Alkemade’s tips centered on historical fiction writing in particular, almost all of these lessons extend to other genres as well. I learned that research can take you anywhere. You may begin on a mission to write about your own family, and end up with a novel. The important thing is getting out there and finding information. You never know what random tidbit will inspire you. The material itself will dictate, in many ways, the type of piece you write.



Twitter: @KimvanAlkemade

By: Emily Woodoworth