Why We (Or I, at Least) Write

October 6, 2017 Literature , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS

Hector Laborde photo

 

By

Mark W. Jones

 

I was young and I was stupid; I was idealistic and I was naive; writing picked me at age six or seven (“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”); I would eschew Writing School and be a great writer of books like my childhood hero, Dickens and perhaps dramatize the social ills of our time. But as I acquired the practical skills of craftmanship and the experience of sending out and getting back rejected manuscripts that needed rejection to be re-imagined and sent out again, the pessimism at my self-styled but untutored hand began to mirror the fatalism every time I sent out a manuscript. Admittedly, I said these stories needed re-plotting, re-thinking; but when I read what was in the recent issues of what is taken as America’s most profound and literary of magazines, I discovered much of what was there was homogenized sheep-dip.

I needn’t compare mine to theirs; it was that theirs sounded all the same, stories that were stripped down until not even the room is imagined, the world around them; the characters nameless, faceless, interchangeable Sophists, bereft of intellectual or psychological content, the automaton of the author’s will. These are the Manufactured Writers of Writing School; they should be writing manuals for IBM. Raymond Carver, the hero of this Sophistry, was the genotype of the Manufactured Writer, rising from lunch-pail to college professor and Professional Writer, and he demonstrates the point; go through Writing School and get yourself a faculty position; non-credentialed writers need not apply.

Still I sent out. I decided at one juncture that I’d write what I would deem enough short stories for a book’s-worth (turns out it was twenty-two, twenty-three with a chapter from my novel, Mr. Green Goes to Town); I would revise these stories until I perfected them as well as I could and then move on to the next project. As I went through these stories, it occurred to me that it seemed absurd that at a time when the societal mores became more relaxed and America more democratic than ever, that there should be the autocratic chute called Writing School that herds the Flock through it so they can achieve accreditation to be a Professional Writer and so gain fame and fortune. Our best and favorite writers never suffered the idiocy of Writing School, although many of them were nurtured on journalism; Twain, Hemingway, Lewis, Dreiser, even Faulkner dabbled in lit-journalism in N’Awlin’s as he was being mentored by Sherwood Anderson, all the way up to Tim O’Brien of our time. But to take Twain’s example; he took to newspaperin’ to write tall tales, when journalism wasn’t nailed down to who, what, when, where and why. That jumping frog jump-started his career. Hemingway attributed journalism to his discipline of word economy.

In Hemingway’s time you could walk into a newspaper room, claim that you could write as well as anyone on the staff and you might rise or fall on that claim; nowadays, you need a degree to pursue a journalism career. Doctors and dentists are held to high professional standards because society demands minds that can understand the esoteric knowledge that being a physician entails and for public safety reasons. Writing has been professionalized until only those who joined the country club can participate. There is no foundational reasons for the exclusionary nature of Writing School, so you look around for Writing School’s reason for being, whom does it benefit?; firstly, the universities which accrue both acclaim and money from the Writing Schools and the mid-listers who couldn’t make a living any other way. The writers themselves? The Writing School abattoirs are grinding out more garbage every day.

The Natural Writer is what is posed against the Manufactured Writer, a counter-example of why anyone would want to write, he writes without prompting, example or mentor; he perceives the world in one particular way and wants to communicate that stylized vision to anyone who might want to read it. Not that Manufactured Writers can’t be committed, but then why have Manufactured Writers and Writing School pimps…er..teachers, at all? Manufactured Writers are manufactured because their first motive isn’t to write, they aren’t driven by something inside them. I challenge anybody to tell me what a Writing School pimp can teach you, and tell you in advance that it’s my disreputable opinion that Writing School and its teachers are today’s Professor Marvel driving his snake-oil wagon; Writing School is a scam to create teaching positions for mid-list writers to enisle them against the vagaries of the Marketplace and its philistine readers.

Really now. What can one of these so-called teachers teach you? Discipline; to sit your bipolar ass in the seat and not get up until you’ve written so many words, an entirely capricious and subjective number, but you do it anyway? The question’s stupid; it’s fundamental and can’t be taught. Craftsmanship? Talent? Auden had a gift that we mere mortals don’t possess. If anything, Lowell and Jarrell and even O’Connor, early Writing School attendees, swallowed up Writing School, Writing School could never absorb them. What teachers have is contacts; to other would-be authors, to successful authors, editors, agents and publishers. I’m not knocking the valuable prompts that these contacts could give to a career; but the people giving them are more brokers than teachers. If you don’t know how to structure a sentence, what goes into a paragraph and what should be left out, or have to study the graph of what makes a story, go back to middle school and then go into Accounting, have a nice bourgeois life and hope you make plenty of money.

Otherwise, writing is a life-term commitment, as all-consuming as the pursuit of money to some. But my mistake was in the huge presumption that you didn’t have to be a Professional Writer, that writing and publishing would be open to everybody, and those who had the grit and talent would find a readership, a fairly egalitarian enterprise; or at least there would be a side-structure that was less formal; there is, it’s called independent publishers that you can send your novel to unagented, but that’s still a hard skull to crack.

Despite these capricious barriers I persist in sending out because these stories are about human beings as I see them, flawed, stupid, and comical because of it. But also because these stories are an act of sedition against Writing School and everything that they believe they taught some poor shlep, who could have saved the thousands of dollars and learned the craft on his own, but then would have been frozen out of a career. I never regretted not attending Writing School; it’s like many communal activities, like prison, the military or a religious cult, conformity, subtle or otherwise, is encouraged, sometimes enforced. You write for your teacher, not for yourself, which is to say the audience of one instead of the universal readership. It’s also my disreputable opinion that if Faulkner and Hemingway were to show up today and bite Writing School in the hindquarters, Writing School would yelp, but not recognize who inflicted the injury. Keeping that vicious bite in mind, I keep writing and sending out.

 

 

 

 

Mark W. Jones

I was born in Detroit, Mich., in 1956 and have resided in Colo. since 1976. I have written one novel, Mr. Green Goes to Town, and am writing a second novel. My short stories and article have appeared in various magazines such as F.O.C. Review, Welter, Dan River Stories, Re:al, in the “Overtime” series chapbook of Workers Write! and, most recently, in several iterations of Conceit. My short story, “Under the Weather,” was selected for inclusion in 2016’s Best New Writing.

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