Can journalists become “creative” writers?

When I was a baby writer, I had no interest in journalism. I wanted to be Robert Frost or Louisa May Alcott. In high school, I did not get involved with the school paper. I took creative writing. This was in the 1960s, and our “magazine” was a brown paper bag called “Your Bag” in which we inserted colored slips of paper with poems and stories typed on them. Those were wacky times, my friends. Lots of beads, miniskirts, and long straight hair parted in the middle. The scent of marijuana everywhere.

When it came time to choose a college major, I would have loved to major in creative writing or music, but I didn’t come from a wealthy family. College was a luxury we couldn’t really afford. I knew I had to make a living, so I chose journalism. At West Valley Community College, I edited a magazine full of poetry, fiction, and airy articles illustrated with black and white art. At San Jose State, I wrote lengthy articles for the school magazine. I did not get involved with the frantic activity over at the Spartan Daily office.

Then I needed a job, and guess where I ended up? Newspapers. One after another after another. Writing, editing, taking photos. Covering city council, school board, features, business, local artists, and everything else. I loved it. I was good at it. But I still wanted to write fiction and poetry.

Many years later, I went back to school and earned my MFA in creative writing, specializing in something called “creative nonfiction,” true stories using elements of fiction like point of view, characters, setting and plot. I was probably the only student sneaking time between classes to conduct interviews for my freelance article assignments.

So, now I was a certified creative writer. But what had all those years of journalism done to my skills? In academia, there’s a big divide between literary writing and journalism. Art vs. trade. Some literary types imply that journalism ruins a person for creative writing. Does it?

Let’s look at the pros and cons:

Pro:

  • Writing regularly for publication teaches you to write quickly and efficiently. There’s no time for writer’s block. You just do it.
  • Journalists develop information-gathering skills and learn how to translate that information into palatable prose.
  • In the course of their work, journalists meet a wide range of people and learn about many different subjects.
  • You can build up your clips and develop a recognizable name which can lead to other opportunities.
  • You usually get paid actual money for articles.

Con:

  • Because of deadline pressure, journalists don’t have much time to revise and polish. They crank it out, do a quick spellcheck and turn it in.
  • Because of a lack of space, journalists may not explore stories in much depth.
  • Because the language of most newspapers is plain and simple, there’s a tendency to use a limited vocabulary.
  • Sometimes the articles are little more than free advertising.

I think working as a journalist is a good thing for any kind of writer. Hemingway and Mark Twain did it. Pete Hamill and Tom Wolfe did it. Why not you and me? After all, you’re working with words every day, polishing your skills, and learning about the world.

But do those skills translate into creative writing? Read this article, “Journalists Who Turn to Fiction Writing Can Find It Tough Going,” about journalist-turned-novelist Scott Flanders.

What do you think? Can journalists also be literary writers? Why or why not? Please respond in the comments.

Now let’s go write.

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