One of the basic essay types we teach in our first-year composition program is “explaining.” Deceptively simple, the goal of this unit is to show that explaining the what, why, and how of a thing in a meaningful way takes grace and care. It’s so easy to brush aside this essay type as rudimentary—after all, explanation is one of the first things we demand as children (Why this? Why that?). But this semester I wanted to add a greater sense of purpose my explaining unit. I wanted to make this essay more meaningful, more useful to the students.
So, since we’re talking about creativity in my writing class, we spent a few days this unit discussing “creative spaces,” and I assigned an essay prompt in which students explain their “ideal creative workspace,” whatever that may be. As a class, we asked, What is it about pubs and coffee shops and libraries that throw all of our creative energy into motion? What exactly makes a space conducive to creativity? Their ideas were fantastic: some creative spaces allow you to move in and out of isolation and community, some have ready access to caffeine and chocolate, and most have comfortable places to land for a few hours. One student described creative spaces as those in which you can witness something beautiful. (I am the luckiest teacher in the world, by the way.)
As for myself, I’m fascinated by the material culture of creative spaces—all the little knick-knacks and physical ephemera that fill up a space. I like flair on my walls and colorful pens in my jars. Like Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail, I’d take a bouquet of school supplies over roses any old day. When I finally got a room of my own as a college student, I let the flowers, icons, mini statues, and literary posters take over. You would’ve thought my dorm was occupied by a grandmotherly artist, not a twenty-something English major. My home office nowadays is not so different, I’m afraid:
I expected my students would write about their dorm rooms or the library, but I was a little unprepared for how much they ran with this prompt. Honestly, I don’t miss the days of sharing a room with another 19-year-old—no privacy, very little quiet, and certainly not the kind of space I would deem “creative.” My students, though, really redeemed the dorm room as a creative space, much to my surprise. Their workspaces were sometimes carefully constructed within the tight quarters of a three-person room, they referenced talismans (like a beloved stuffed animal, a particular family photo, or a “writing hat” a la Jo March) that inspired them, and they waxed poetic about lighting and colors and shapes—all in dorm rooms, or, in some cases, dining halls or library study rooms. One student even claimed “riding on his longboard” as a genuinely creative space.
They also gave me pictures. I asked for 4-5 images interwoven throughout the text, and I was so impressed by the care with which they approached this part of the prompt. I received some images filled to the brim with pink (a particularly color-coordinated dorm room, it seems), a photo of our campus at sunrise, styled images of frappuccinos amidst a backdrop of library stacks, and adorable stuffed animals in dark, Bat Cave alcoves. They didn’t shy away from showing me bits and pieces of their personalities—these, after all, are the kinds of details that make any explanation that much more vibrant. (I’m so proud of them.)
Reading their essays inspired me to be more thoughtful about my own creative workspace—i.e. why does this old sunroom-turned-office work so well for me? And so, because they asked, I’m sharing some hallmarks of my favorite creative space, images and all:
(If you are of the teacher-sort, too, and you’re curious about the prompt, here is what I used: “Explaining Your Ideal Creative Workspace“)