Perhaps the most important part of being a creative writing student, of engaging in the act of creative writing, is having motivation. It is easy to assume that because creative writing is not generally a required course, that anyone who takes a creative writing class will not have many problems with motivation. They are, after all, making the decision to be in that class, and if they did not want to write creatively they would not be taking a creative writing class. However, it is precisely this reason that makes motivation in a creative writing class simultaneously so important and so fragile. When a course is an elective, the student does not need it to graduate, so there is no external motivation that keeps students going and engaged in the material. The only motivation that creative writing students have comes from two sources, their own internal motivation, and the feedback that a teacher gives them on their writing pieces. If either of these sources of motivation are insufficient, a student might find it difficult, if not impossible, to engage in the act of creative writing.
Motivation lies at the heart of everything that a creative writer does, and is shaped by both the individual and the context they find themselves in. Both teachers and students have a part to play in establishing and maintaining the students motivation. The student has some internal motivation to write, otherwise they would not be in the class, but the actions of the teacher can shape that motivation, either reinforcing or diminishing it. The student brings a writing piece to the table, and it is the teacher’s job to react to that piece and help inspire the student to move forwards with their work. When the feedback that a creative writer receives is constructive, when it helps them see how to improve their own work, it encourages them to continue. However, providing such feedback is not always an easy task. While the feedback that a teacher gives can impact the students and their motivation, a student’s willingness to accept feedback on their writing is also important. Because of how personal their work is, it can be very hard for students to accept feedback on their writing, especially when what they are writing comes from the heart and the mind.
It should not be forgotten that the students’ own actions can also play a role in how easy or difficult it is for teachers to engage with their students. Teachers of creative writing students know that when a student cannot find a way to motivate themselves, it becomes increasingly hard to engage them. Worse, if a creative writing student decides that they are not “good enough” to be a writer, the task of getting them to see their own strengths, as well as their shortcomings, can be a daunting one. Fortunately for teachers of creative writing students, motivation can be influenced by identifying and using pressure points to increase student motivation.
Pressure points are places where interventions can be applied in order to increase or decrease something, and in this case that something is student motivation. One major framework that is useful for describing how pressure points can be applied to creative writing is the self determination theory framework. The self determination theory says that there are three main pressure points that relate to students in an academic context (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). The first pressure point is a student’s sense of relatedness, whether they feel connected to the teacher and to the larger group. The second pressure point is the students feelings of autonomy, whether they believe they have some control over how things are going. The third pressure point is the students sense of competence, whether they have self efficacy, and whether they feel like they can succeed even if they take a chance and do something when success is not guaranteed. The teacher has a role to play in nurturing these, and the student has a role to play in internalizing these things and carrying them forwards.
In writing, there is a general tendency to downplay the importance of relatedness. Writing is typically thought of as being a solitary activity, that writing is just about the writer who is creating the story. But writing is not solitary, as writers have an audience that includes the teacher and sometimes includes other students or family members. Most creative writers are ultimately writing for someone else to read, whether just the teacher or for a more general audience. A reciprocal relationship is formed between the students and the teacher based on the work that is done and the feedback that is received and utilized. When the teacher gives a student feedback, ultimately they are saying something about the quality of the relationship, not just something about the work. This is important to keep in mind when teaching creative writing students, and is another reason why the feedback that a teacher gives to students is so critical for determining motivation.
A student’s sense of autonomy also seems to be something that is already covered in a creative writing course. Students, after all, likely do most of their creative writing work independently, and typically have the ability to choose what they write about. Their work is essentially their own. When it comes to the process of revision however, creative writing students find themselves swamped in comments and possible suggestions in various tones and styles. Accepting feedback on work is difficult in general, but for creative writing students such feedback also pushes against a students sense of autonomy. They wrote the entire work by themselves, so the feedback from others on how they should revise their work can feel like an infringement on their autonomy. For teachers, the solution to this issue is not to stop giving feedback, as doing so would negate the entire point of creative writing. Rather it is to remind students that they get to choose what feedback they utilize, and how they incorporate it into their work. In this way, students can still maintain a sense of control, while also incorporating valuable information and input they receive from others into their pieces.
A student’s sense of competence can be a major factor in their motivation, and can be one of the biggest issues when it comes to creative writing. There is a tendency when we look at creative writing to only see the final version of the piece, and this applies to creative writing students as well. It can be very hard for students to feel competent when their work turns out to not be as good as they expected, which occurs all the time in creative writing. But creative writing does not just start and stop with the eventual finished product. It is a continuous process of drafting, revising, and drafting some more. And through each revision cycle, the piece slowly grows and expands, becoming better each time. Making the process of creative writing the focus, instead of focusing on the eventual outcome, can be a great way for teachers to increase their students’ feelings of competence. It is easier for a student to start and continue writing when the focus is on small improvements rather than complete masterpieces, and the increased competence that they feel also boosts their motivation.
Student motivation is linked with identity, and identity is an important part of the motivation process (Master et al., 2016). Identity is defined as a coherent conception of self, including values and beliefs of personal, religious, cultural, and political perspectives, to which one is solidly committed. Much of a student’s identity is involved in the decision to learn more, and writing presents a unique challenge to identity. The work that a creative writer does, the writing that they pour their time and effort into, is tied very closely with their identity. A piece of creative writing contains not only the words on the page, but also parts of the writer’s identity that they drew upon in order to create the piece. Not only does writing tie into their identity as a writer, but many creative writers take inspiration from things in their own lives and place them in their writing. Because of how much of a writer’s identity is tied up in a piece, the way that a teacher responds to a creative writing piece can be either energizing or devastating for a student’s motivation.
Teachers need to respect the identity that students bring to the table. However it is also possible to use identity as a way of improving or encouraging motivation. Such a thing needs to be done carefully and used appropriately, as over labeling students or giving false praise will backfire. Telling students that they are writers and demanding that they do justice to that identity will do more harm than good, as their expectations become set to a standard they likely cannot reach. On the other hand, pointing out to the students when they do well, and encouraging them to continue writing can get them into the process of writing and boost their motivation to continue. Simply telling students that they are writers is not enough, instead we should aim to show students that they are writers. It should not be forced upon them, but rather should be shown to them by the increasing quality of their own work. That way, when a student begins to falter, all you need to do is show them just how far they have already come, and remind them that with time and effort, they can go further still.
Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (2002). Motivational Beliefs, Values, and Goals. Annual Review of Psychology, 53(1), 109-132. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135153
Master, A., Cheryan, S., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2016). Motivation and identity. Handbook of Motivation at School, 300-319.