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Dedicated to The Big Black Dog*

December 22, 2008

One of the problems many writers seem to have when writing about writing is that they think it’s an excuse for them to tell other people how to write. On some level, I guess I understand; most of my students want to be told down to the syllable what exactly constitutes an ‘A’ essay, and most of them are frustrated when I don’t tell them. But we expect a certain amount of eccentricity and antipathy from college instructors. We don’t expect it from writers in exactly the same way. No, from writers we expect exuberance and passion, depth and deep tragedy, horribly flawed but ultimately beautiful personalities. We expect genius at the price of addiction, abuse, and loneliness. AND we expect writers to be able to tell us how to write.

The logic is simple. We say (or think) You know how to write. Now tell me how you do it so I can do it, too. And unfortunately, there are more than a few poor suckers who fall for it. Ego isn’t a new trap, after all. Some poor bastards not only sit around and talk about it like they’re the resurrected Hemingway in Paris, but a few even write books about how to write books. Now, I am slightly more forgiving of books about how to break into particular markets;  but only slightly. All of those tomes are repetitive and useless. In a way, I think I just respect the sheer gall of a writer who has the balls to write a bullshit book on how to write or how to get published, even though I don’t respect the book. There’s always something about a well orchestrated grift that I simply have to pay some homage to, because a successful scam isn’t all that different from a successful book. It’s simply a matter of discipline and patience on the part of the writer playing against the randomness of taste and the gullibility of the poor sclub wandering Borders sipping a soy-half-caf-mocha-latte in search of his future fame and fortune under the title I Was a Teenage Coffee-Drink Slurper: 10 Sure Fire Steps to Literary Fame and Cirrhosis.

Whenever I think about writing about writing, this former fiction professor from graduate school comes to mind. She and I didn’t get along – and that would be putting it mildly.  Part of the reason was my fault; I can admit that now. I was a lousy student – not that I lacked the aptitude, or even the inclination, since I did manage to graduate. Mostly I was a lousy student for the same reason I’m probably a lousy American. I distrust authority to a shocking degree, whether it’s real or imagined… and most of it is imagined. She had her share of the blame, too, though. She wasn’t that great of a teacher.  Looking back, I can forgive some of this, because teaching is a difficult skill to acquire (I’m still working on it myself); however, she took the approach, not uncommon for college fiction and poetry professors, that part of her function was to be the Grand Arbitrator, determining who was fit to be a writer and who wasn’t. This meant there had to be rules and guidelines to judge student work by, and she laid them out on the first night of class. One of the rules was to “Avoid the big black dog.” This was an injunction against obvious metaphors. Another “Avoid alarm clocks.” This was an injunction against the Dallas style device of pretending the entire book was a dream.  And, the last rule I remember (I’m surprised I still remember three) was “Never write about a writer.  This only demonstrates your lack of imagination.”

Never mind that Kerouac, Henry Miller, and Bukowski had all written about being writers. Never mind that these three writers might just be the trifecta of writers with the most cultural influence since Whitman.  Never mind that I couldn’t tell if her thin-lipped smile was intended tell me that her list was a joke or if it was supposed to come off snarky and obnoxious (which it did.) After the first night of class, I was annoyed. No. I was more than annoyed. I was pissed off. 

After that, I started going to class drunk. Luckily, it only met once a week, or I’d probably be on my second liver by now.

Arrogant little prick that I was, I had determined that if she was going to define writing in such a ridiculously narrow way, then I was going to show the class – half of which were simply taking an advanced fiction class to fulfill an English credit in combination with having the fool notion that writing was some grand romantic adventure and not the manic-depressive grind of an obsessed mind—just how wrong she was. [Here’s a hint—people who are happy and well-adjusted (what I might call delusional) who decide to become writers end up quitting or transforming into maladjusted, grumpy assholes. Success or failure has nothing to do with it.] This half of the class didn’t care about being literary and the rest of us were wandering through the grand mirage that youth and graduate school create – that we were somehow going to turn literature on its ear.  The impossibility of this wasn’t something we considered – it is, in fact, easier to flip a fully loaded semi with a toothpick – but we were determined. And some of us retain the fool notion well after formal education; which is why writers are such miserable bastards. It rarely works out the way you think it’s going to. Happy people don’t need imagination or demonstrate any anti-social compulsions. They accept their jobs, the mortgage, the two weeks of vacation every year. And among those who DO become writers, it’s possible to separate them into categories: Genre, Literary, and Art. And it’s never nearly as clear cut as you might suppose. The usual definitions of these aspirations are dead wrong. But the one that will surely drive you fuckbug nuts is Art. This is because Art, as a living and organic and vibrant thing, is never really appreciated unless it can be copied, comodified, and sold like a Big Mac.  And once it is appreciated, the half-life of the work begins to diminish. Quickly.

This brings me back to my former fiction professor. Her pretenses were Literary. She hated genre writing and refused to get into the muck of what it means to be an Artist. She was working on her own book of course – that eventually went on the publication with a large New York publishing house – and she was determined, maybe to help justify herself (also not uncommon amongst college fiction and poetry profs) to impart some piece of her notions to those select few who showed themselves to be deserving neophytes and who would bow down to the knee high leather boots she often wore. As if being a writer was a sacred thing! Maybe there was a time when poets and writers were prophets; but now we’re just underpaid janitors, cleaning up everybody’s shit (as well as our own) and looking for the good stuff people throw away but that’s still of use. But it was her class, and her rules, and that meant we were all subject to her and them. My drunken antics rose to such a height that one night she and I stood in front of the entire class screaming at one another. The context of this event: a class exercise in which she split us into two groups and told us we had to come up with a fake literary magazine. We had to have a title, a focus, and establish criteria by  which we would “judge” work. She put me in the group of people who she felt didn’t belong in a creative writing class. I suspect she was intending to teach me a lesson. We came back with a journal, a focus, and criteria. The journal? Lime Green Jell-O. (Because everybody likes Jell-O, even if it’s ugly.) The focus: carnival and carnival life. The criteria: poetry and fiction about midgets, carnies, clowns, and circus animals.  My group had a lot of fun coming up with that.

When we got back together to present our results, the other group –a few I considered and still consider good friends – did the good deed. Their journal was made to order for her intentions. Ours was not so well received, though. She accused the group – actually just me – of making a mockery of the whole thing.  I defended myself. She dug in. Some of the people in my group rose to my defense. She silenced them and continued to dig into me, her voice rising, her face turning red. She yelled because she was pissed and embarrassed that I threw the assignment back in her face. I yelled because, well, I was drunk.  I’d like to say I feel badly about it; I know that would be the appropriate thing to do. As a teacher, I have had my fair share of students who remind me of me, and from that perspective, I am little sympathetic to how she must have felt.  But the truth is, I don’t feel bad.  We were both on opposite ends of the same problem—which is that writing is not something that can really be taught. Writers become better by writing a lot of horrible and unreadable shit, not by learning about how other people write it and not by following an arbitrary set of rules given by somebody else.

The only rules that matter for the writer are the rules he sets for himself. For me, honesty counts – but that can take a hell of a lot of forms. And even with that as a rule, I think a well constructed lie can do just as much good or evil in the world.  Besides, regardless of how honest the writing is or how well-intended the writer is, once it becomes lines on paper or on a screen, it becomes a fiction, anyway. And any writer who feels the need to go into more detail about the process of how to write or what the writing should “look” like is either picking your pocket or committing the cardinal error of buying his own bullshit.  This is not only dishonest – but it makes for some awful reading.


* This is dedicated to Kyle, Jose, Jared, Margaret, Lonnie, and Sheri J.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian Custer permalink
    December 22, 2008 10:29 pm

    This, my friend, is profanely humoring to me. I have been recently asking myself how to be a good writer, but I haven’t gone so far as asking someone how to do it, instead I intend on reading the books that I know are great. Style and prose are either an assimilation of anothers or just plain ‘ol you. You either have or you don’t and like you siad most give in and quit because quite frankly their expectations didn’t meet the demand that writing involves…mostly the manic-depressive grind of an obsessive mind…beautiful. And to think that the twit of a professor succumbing to her own ambitious rigamarole job of being said Grand Arbitrator and laying rules and guidelines to be judged, to me personnally, attests to her ability to be authentic in any art form. Props to you for this piece, it was amusing and no matter how ugly green jello is still so good…

    • ohioexpatriate permalink
      December 23, 2008 12:24 pm

      Thanks, man. glad you enjoyed it.

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