I have spoken at several colleges and forums about my writing and publishing endeavors, and the questions that arise are often the same – “How often do you write?” “How do you write a query letter?” “How do you get a publisher’s attention?” “Can you read my manuscript?”- while these questions have become so commonplace as to be annoying, I realize that they reveal something vital about the attitude that college students have about writing, an attitude that effects older writers as well, who regurgitate the same questions when I do non-college events or attend writer functions with my daughter, who is 13 and already contemplating writing as a future career or, at the very least, a passionate hobby, so I take her to these things even if afterwards I spend a good chunk of time correcting any false or misleading information she was exposed to by the writers – most of them self-published – at said event.
So really I should say that the college students grow into the middle aged struggling writers at a steady continuum that carries with it these attitudes that have very little to do with writing and a lot to do with business. The business of fame. The business of outside validation. The business of personal vindication that, against all odds, I have a talent goddamnit. What gets passed along this continuum, from middle aged writer to young writer, and which feeds the cycle of conventions, symposiums, MFA programs, writing groups, writing books, writing blogs which all cover the conventions, symposiums, etc. is that writing is an industry rather than an art form. The questions I am asked do not take into account what I write, why I write, or my intention as a writer. What about my collection of words is worthy of another person’s attention? I have pondered this and even moreso, I have pondered how many people aside myself have honestly asked the question: What do I contribute and why should anyone care?
The supposition when I do these college events is that we all have a story to tell and the world needs to hear our story (a phrase that a simple Google search yields 12.8 million results, none of which, I can say with absolute certitude, question the arrogance and entitlement of such a sentiment), and it is this stunning lack of humility that infests the academic sphere, not just in writing, but in all subjects, and it this lack of humility that has cultivated a literary culture in this country where the artesanal origins of literary storytelling have all but been abandoned, because as we all know, storytelling is oral by nature, meaning writing is a perversion of oral narrative and becomes ever moreso as modern writers strip the art of writing from its performative nature to turn it into something staid and analytical instead, something lacking in impulsiveness and intuitiveness and meaning, reducing structure to a formula designed to make sales, and by making sales, become famous, and by becoming famous giving meaning to an otherwise meaningless person.
And when I am asked the aforementioned questions at colleges the response I really want to give is to ask if these students know that writing programs are based on a lie, the lie being that writing is a commodity which anyone can become a master and vendor of. That by merely writing you matter and people care what you have to say. If writing can be reduced to teachable methodology then writing programs can exist by accepting students who can barely piece an interesting sentence together. Creative writing programs have to function in this manner to get even a minimal amount of students to enroll, since only enrolling people with sufficient writerly skills would not be enough to fill classrooms around the country. Writing programs are degree factories, granting rewards upon scores of people who would never, in a million years, have the ability to be published by a reputable press or represented by a decent agent.
Writing programs promise the education of how one can piece together a story and how one can approach an agent, while simultaneously making students all too aware of the difficulty of obtaining an agent or a publishing contract, so that when the student graduates and attempts to get published and receives a sea of rejections, they hold on to stories they have been told of famous writers who endured years of rejection as well, and so it must not be tied to their lack of talent and ability, but rather because the world is not ready for their unique and special voice. So they attend conferences and workshops in the hopes of obtaining some sort of “in” that will take them to the next level, never once questioning if they are actually good at the art of writing or even good at the paint by numbers approach to writing taught at university programs. In this world, failure is not a product of being insufficiently talented, since by the very nature of their existence, the writer has a story to be a told and the world needs their story.
But I don’t say that, because the college has been nice enough to ask me to come speak to this gathering of students, or perhaps the instructor is a friend of mine. I could maybe ask them why they are concerned about publishing when they ought to be concerned about perfecting their craft.
I cannot help but think of Fernando Pessoa, widely regarded as the greatest Portuguese poet of the 20th century, who only published a handful of pieces during his lifetime. His most revered works, in fact, were found in a chest in his home after he died at the age of 47. He created what were known as “heteronyms”, which were pseudonyms that took on complete lives of their own, with their own histories, styles, philosophies, even sexualities. His heteronyms would write criticisms of pieces published under the name of other heteronyms. Pessoa was very likely a madman, or at the very least, someone with a peculiar case of dissociative personality disorder, and he was also clearly someone who could give two fucks about trends, query letters, how to find an agent, word count goals, conferences, or any other aspect of the modern writing world.
His writing is all the better for it, because he had a clear understanding of how the craft of writing, which is to say the art, which is to say the heart of self-expression, comes from digging into our deepest selves, knowing our deepest desires and contradictions, and plastering our existence onto the face of the earth. Pessoa was concerned with capturing and analyzing and experiencing life, and this is true of all the great artists.
Not everyone can be an artist, the core of whose existence cannot be taught in a four-year curriculum or captured in even the savviest of syllabi, artistry is an inherent trait that contradicts the nature of higher education, which is geared toward practical life applications. Writing programs are really teaching programs whose existence has far more to do with restocking adjunct rolls or as a farm system for doctoral programs. Writing degrees, while disguised as a gateway to the publishing world, are really gateways to academia. Their concern is not with artistry but rather with academic analysis and navel gazing. Such activities are perfect for studying literature, but they are antithetical to artistic expression, which is meant to be bold, unrestrained, and confrontational.
One of the most common complaints about MFA programs, for instance, is how they pull students toward consensus, that students who branch out and experiment are often derided, as are students from non-straight white male backgrounds. Instead of compelling students to be inventive and groundbreaking, college writing programs adhere to the status quo of what Big 5 publishers are looking for, thus neutering young writers of the confidence required to make unconventional, daring leaps in their creative development. It is in their youth that artists need cultivation and a space to discover their true selves, and I would argue that such discovery is hindered by being in an environment that invites peer pressure and an oppressive status quo. To discover who you are, sometimes you need reflection and solitude and more than anything else, the will to not give a fuck. Because the minute you get into the hive mind of academia, you will give far too many fucks, leading to writing by committee, which ultimately is just typing, aimlessly, in the hopes that if you produce enough words, you might impress someone.
So the next time I speak at a college and I am asked about publishing or writing routines or anything other than artistic expression, I may just reply with: What kind of writer do you want to be? An artist, or someone who just types? You want to impress others, or do you want to challenge yourself? The answers to those questions, I would wager, would determine whether you should join the ranks of future academics, or the ranks of future artists.