To my Creative Writing 101 students —

I’m as aware as you are that on the first class of this semester I informed you all that the key to emotionally genuine work was to write what you know. However, I’ve also always held that the mark of the best professor is the ability to admit when one is wrong, which after slogging through your first pieces this weekend, I feel a moral obligation to do. You got me, I messed up, please write about literally anything else.

Look, I’m not saying that your emotional truth isn’t worth reading, but that’s also kind of what I’m saying. And it’s not your fault either! I understand that you all attend a prestigious, exclusive institution of higher education with an acceptance rate in the single digits. I understand that to get here you had to spend more time studying than going to parties or finding yourself in any meaningful capacity. But I also understand that if I have to read another story about how you and your stoic mother bonded on the way to SAT camp, I will blow my brains out across this desk, which I think we can all agree is less than ideal.

Allow me to explain. The idea behind the aphorism is that a story supplemented with your own life experiences will be emotionally richer than your teenage attempts to portray a situation you don’t have the maturity to execute effectively. However, this point becomes moot if your own life experiences amount to roughly 45 seconds of meaningful content. To put this another way, I would rather have the world’s best grilled cheese than a sloppy soufflé, but I would also rather have the world’s worst soufflé than a plate of tepid dogshit.

To help clarify my point, I’ve amassed a few examples from your first drafts of how writing what you know can result in the kind of violently inane work that threatens my consciousness:

  • As engaging as I found your story about a child fighting a mysterious “momster,” I think you would be better served with an ending other than your narrator vanquishing the beast and drawing a brand new Xbox from its corpse.
  • Your narrative about the time a protagonist sharing your name won first prize in the school science fair left me craving rawness, as well as character, conflict, and any punctuation mark besides the semicolon.
  • While every word covered in the Direct Hits series may technically fall under the umbrella of what you “know,” I wouldn’t take it as an invitation to include all of them in your 500-word short story. Other words have merit too! For example, articles and pronouns.
  • I know you put in time and effort to memorize all those Halsey songs, but I’d prefer not to read any of them quoted in their entirety in your submission.
  • If you must write about your grandparents, I’d appreciate if they did something other than silently cook food emblematic of your cultural heritage. My middle-schooler wrote one of those and it was just as mind-numbingly boring as the ten I just graded.
  • The next person who submits a breakup poem gets an F.

Additionally, I know that the SAT doesn’t exactly foster creativity since they axed that analogy section, so I’ve thought of a few prompts to help you along for your next assignment. I trust you’ll find the resulting work a vast improvement over your initial attempts:

  • A unicorn comes to the big city for the first time. So many possibilities here! What will the unicorn do first? I would guess probably not SAT camp!
  • Make every first word of a sentence form a secret message. Hollywood has been very successful at using Easter eggs to distract from a lack of substance, and so can you!
  • Think of the last dream you had. Then just submit that. The psychedelic nonsense of your subconscious mind will provide the creative “je ne sais quoi” lacking in literally any of your conscious thoughts.
  • Format your text into a fun shape like an apple or a tree. A picture is worth a thousand words!
  • Here’s a fun “story hack” that’ll help you tech kids revise your current drafts: open your document, then on your keyboard, press “command (or control) + a”, then “delete.” Wow! It’s looking better already.

I understand that this kind of mental gymnastics might be trying for some of you, and it’s okay if this isn’t easy. I assure you that my door is always open, so it won’t hit you on your way out. Don’t worry — I have utter confidence that the chemistry or engineering department will welcome you with open arms. I can see many of you pursuing a promising career in interventional anesthesia.

Best wishes,
Your Professor