Creative Writing?

When I was an undergraduate English major in the late 1960s, one of my instructors, in fact, my favorite when it came to writing instruction, scoffed at the phrase “creative writing.” All writing is creative, he used to say. By that he meant (I think) that the process of writing is one of creation whether you’re writing a news story or the Great American Novel. (I succeeded at the first and failed at the second.)

Remember Janet Cooke?

She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 while a reporter for the Washington Post. It turned out, the story was fiction promoted as fact. The Post returned the Pulitzer and fired Cooke, who later, according to Wikipedia, sold the movie rights for $1.6 million.

In today’s headlines we have a report on the creation of a sensational story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. The report tells us that the writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and her editors failed Journalism 101 by, among other things, not checking multiple sources or confirming events that were easily confirmable. It wasn't a matter of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story; it was a matter of not getting the facts to begin with.

I wanted to know more about Erdely and so I went to the Wikipedia entry about her. It said she had been a pre-med major at the University of Pennsylvania (not to be confused with the Pennsylvania State University) who ultimately graduated with a degree in journalism. Knowing that the Ivies look down their noses at journalism degrees, I checked the source for this information—Erdely’s own website. As I suspected, she does not have a degree in journalism. Like Cooke (and me), she has a degree in English, and that’s according to her website.

We English majors like to turn a phrase and tell good stories. Facts are something to be manipulated—like digital photographs in Photoshop.

Consider John Berendt. He revealed that he altered the timeline in his “nonfiction” Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in order to create a better story. According to Wikipedia, Berendt has a degree in English from Harvard. What is it with English majors?

Ever since Cooke, who perpetrated her crime against the facts when I was just starting my career as a journalism professor, I’ve thought that the one strength journalism curricula had over English was a course in ethics. If nothing else, an ethics course for English majors could emphasize that if you manipulate the facts—move the Pyramids closer together, for example, which a photographer did for a National Geographic cover—don’t sell your work as nonfiction. Here’s a great yarn based on fact, but it ain’t the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

In the meantime, I edited Erdely’s Wikipedia entry, and she now has a degree in English, not journalism, which is only fitting. After all, somebody’s gotta check the facts. 


  1. They were all Stephen Glass.

  2. If you're into history and media and fact-checking, you might enjoy reading the complete history of a domestic violence factoid:


  3. hi! I love that I happened upon this while delving into this RS/Sabrina Erdeley debacle (I live in Cville and witnessed the fallout from their reprehensible story and it infuriates me). You were one of my journ professors about a thousand years ago at PSU (in the early 80's)---in fact didn't you teach ethics? I think you did. I've been involved in a heated discussion about Erdeley amongst a number of women journalists online yesterday and today, several of whom were defending Erdeley and getting furious with my suggestion that she was an Ivy leaguer who didn't study journalism but rather wrote for UPenn's magazine, where she got the taste for glory without the lessons in ethics. I was dismayed at how many of them took great offense--how dare I suggest that you can't be a good journalist unless you get a journalism degree?! Which isn't even what I said, but how they chose to interpret... Which sort of gives me less faith in the future of journalistic integrity...glad to see you're still writing. I turned toward fiction-writing myself-->it frees you a bit from the truth end of things ;-)

    1. No, I did not teach the ethics course, but I did make sure ethics were discussed in all of my courses, as did other instructors. Interesting that we reached a similar conclusion without colluding. :-)

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