Alex Creighton on Writing Habits and Community

BY Emily Thompson | June 27, 2024 | Profiles, Writers on Writing

It’s a foggy Friday afternoon when Alex Creighton and I bump into each other outside of Wheeler and breathlessly hike up to Stephens Hall together. We withdraw from the campus buzz outside and enter an empty Townsend Center, already closed for the weekend. Here, we chat over the dull hum of rain and sporadic lull induced by the breeze from the Bay. 

headshot of smiling man with dark hair and brown eyes, wearing blue buttoned-down shirt
Alex Creighton, Art of Writing postdoctoral fellow (who will be missed when he leaves us for Bennington College!)

That bay breeze is something Creighton, the Art of Writing postdoctoral fellow, will soon come to miss. 

Originally from the East Coast, Creighton holds a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and a PhD from Harvard University. Two years ago, he joined the Art of Writing team. 

Emily: How did you initially get involved with Art of Writing? 

Alex Creighton: The postdoc that I have is through the organization American Council of Learned Societies. They match recent graduate students to different programs, and I got paired with Art of Writing because they were looking for a writing specialist to help the program become even more central to the writing culture at Berkeley. 

Although the position only required him to teach one class per year, Creighton quickly became involved in many aspects of Art of Writing–running workshops and student essay contests, and teaching Film 193: Intermediate Film Writing. Creighton has also led a few Art of Writing graduate student article revision workshops where each graduate student brought an essay to rework. To my surprise, Creighton explains that there are not many opportunities available to graduate students for this kind of feedback within their home departments. 

Emily: I think that really speaks to having a community of writers that you can bounce your ideas off of. 

Alex Creighton: That’s actually something I was thinking about, leading up to today. I like the word community, but I think it’s more of an aspiration than a reality. It occurred to me that it’s often a very utopian idea. It can sometimes be a word that represents this thing that isn’t necessarily there. I really believe in the idea of writers and readers coming together, sharing their work, talking frankly, and giving feedback. It’s a good goal to work towards. Figuring out how to make time for engaging with one another’s work is hard, but that’s what I care about. 

Emily: In regards to making time, how do you find time to write? What does your writing routine look like?

Alex Creighton: In my writing classes, I usually start with something inspired by [Film & Media Professor] Emily West, a series of weekly exercises that build on each other. I learned so much about writing and how to teach writing from Emily — huge shout-out to everything Emily does! She starts the Intermediate Film Writing course with a week focused on writing habits. Just taking a step back and seeing, “Where and when do I write best?” If you spend a little time being conscious of your process, it really goes a long way.

Previously, Creighton used to believe that his best writing could only be accomplished in certain settings; however, he has since discovered that this was a delay tactic disguised as a “utopian idea.” By practicing self-awareness around his writing habits, Creighton was able to shed previous beliefs that had constrained his writing to specific times or places. Of his writing practice now, he says, “I need to just sit down and do the thing. It doesn’t matter what desk I’m at, it doesn’t matter if I have a cup of coffee, I just have to write.” However, delay tactics or even long writing breaks, he explains, are not in essence bad, as long as the writer is aware of them. 

Intriguingly, Creighton’s forthcoming book, The Habits of Novels, interrogates time and habit in 18th-century literature: “How we’ve thought about time and habit over a few centuries: acquiring habits, sticking to habits, and the balance between good and bad habits. And, in particular, how novels make us think about habits in different ways. It’s something I’m constantly thinking about… So of course, I have terrible writing habits.” He acknowledges his own inconsistencies and reassures us that self-forgiveness is essential for any writer. 

Feedback from readers has been fundamental to his process in writing The Habits of Novels.

Alex Creighton: If you can find even one reader who is interested and will give you feedback, it is invaluable. One reader is enough to say, “I didn’t get that–explain this in layman’s terms.

Emily: That’s one of the things that I love about tutoring for Art of Writing. Students come in and I get to be that reader for them. I have the opportunity to say, “This isn’t quite working, let’s see how we can rework it” or “Let’s strengthen your thesis. Let’s work on this intro. Let’s get that hook going.” Doing that for other people has helped me so much in editing my own work. 

Alex Creighton: Yes, it’s an apprenticeship in the sense that we are all constantly learning how to be writers. That’s one thing I really like about the Art of Writing tutoring program, is we all have something to teach each other. This is my philosophy in writing workshops, too. I am, I guess, the person at the head of the classroom. But that’s not the position that I consider myself in. I have more experience with writing than undergraduates do, because I’ve been doing it longer, but undergraduates come in with a particular set of skills and particular ways of reading that I don’t have. So we all contribute. That’s the great thing about workshops–we all will notice things that other people won’t. 

Emily: Speaking of workshops, how would you say that teaching an Art of Writing workshop or course differs from preparing for a non-affiliated course? 

Alex Creighton: One of the cool things with Art of Writing is the focus on intermediate writing courses. Because typically, in the curriculum, you have R1A and R1B. 

Emily: Which is just the basics, right? So students are going from basics to advanced, which is a massive jump.

Alex Creighton: Exactly. The goal with intermediate writing classes is to say,  “okay, you’ve got the basics, let’s do that again”, because you cannot learn how to research in one semester, you have to keep practicing. That’s what really sets AoW apart, not just from other departments, but even from other writing programs. We have a lot of freedom to incorporate new classes. The reality is, in courses like Intermediate Film Writing, we have a vast range of writers from relative beginners to relatively advanced. But everybody in the class gets to practice. Like we were talking about before, the advanced writers learn how to teach other writers, and get better themselves. 

Wanting to highlight exceptional student work, Creighton designed a writing contest for undergraduate Art of Writing courses. “Students can submit something they wrote for their Art of Writing classes and we give out three or four prizes per semester.” Creighton took on the role of editor for the finalists so that they can “get a sense for what the peer review process is like.” As undergraduate students, many of the finalists may not have had their work published yet, so this contest allows the opportunity to work through rounds of feedback. 

Creighton has accepted a position teaching critical writing at Bennington College, located in Southern Vermont, only 10 miles from his undergraduate alma mater Williams College. Though Bennington boasts a well-known low residency Creative Writing MFA program, they did not have as many classes dedicated to critical writing.

Alex Creighton: Camille Guthrie (whom I’ll be working with) started a critical writing-specific program called “Scriptorium.” And  “Scriptorium” focuses on practicing critical writing, not as a totally different beast from creative writing but in conversation. Critical writing is creative, inherently; it’s just a different skill set. 

As he prepares for the position at Bennington College, Creighton explains that his time with Art of Writing has been invaluable. 

Alex Creighton: The Art of Writing team has been a steady joy to work with — in no small part because we all believe in the work we’re doing. I have loved working with this team not just because we’re constantly thinking about cool new programming, but because we’re good at executing that programming — making writing come to life, as it were.

Emily: To undergraduate students at Berkeley, what advice do you have?

Alex Creighton: Take Art of Writing Classes and workshops, work with Art of Writing fellows and tutors. The humanities have struggled to make clear why they are important in the age of the internet, but the reason they are important is because, though the information is available at our fingertips, so is all the misinformation and distraction. Writing classes are a chance to focus on one thing, “I have an idea, and I want to see this idea develop organically. I want my workshop mates to think about this idea with me and let it grow into something over the semester.” It occurs to me that we don’t have many opportunities for working steadily with an idea. That’s what a writing classroom does really well.

Emily: Is that why you’ve fervently continued your education? 

Alex Creighton: It is! And that is why I’m especially excited to teach critical writing and also sad to leave Berkeley. I’ve gotten to be in this environment where we think very seriously about writing–how to write professionally, and how to teach writing in an era of distraction. I get distracted when I’m working and tend to have bad research habits, so I have learned from my own teachers and peers some good habits and skills and ways of thinking. Those conversations take so much time. And Art of Writing goes, “Here you go. Here is the time to have these conversations.” The things I’ve learned here from being a co-teacher, leading workshops, and working with Art of Writing, are all pages of the recipe book that I will be taking with me to Bennington. 

Alex Creighton’s first academic book, The Habits of Novels, is under review at Oxford University Press.