Sunday, January 24, 2010

Away from Your Desk and Out of School

For some reason I was a little more impressed this morning with a line in Mark Steyn's weekend column than I should be. It was his advice to aspiring writers: "Don't just write there, do something."

It put me in mind of somewhere in Sylvia Plath's journals, I think, where she observed that she had spent all her time on literature, whereas her husband, although he knew English language poetry very well, had also studied anthropology, read lots of myths, and, most important of all, spent a lot of time outdoors, fishing, hunting, and observing the natural world. It gave him more to draw on when he wrote.

I've always had a great regard for writing and for writers (as a group, not necessarily for every individual), and I don't think the world is best served when writers spend all their time in literature classes, in school generally, or, heaven help us, in creative writing programs. I noticed a decade ago that whenever I picked up an interesting looking fiction book and read the inside flaps, if the author's bio said he was from a graduate of a creative writing program, I almost invariably put the book back on the shelf; the book had to be exceptionally intriguing for me to break that pattern. I had gained a new bias without intending to or noticing myself acquring it. But when I noticed I had it, it wasn't hard to know why I had it: I had come to expect from books by people whose bio consisted mainly of getting a creative writing degree that their writing would be technically smooth, yes, but that all too often I would be left wondering why they bothered to write it. Like Gertrude Stein's hometown, there was no there there. There might be a story, but when there was, there often didn't seem to be a point. I may be a plebeian and a philistine, but I know worthwhile writing doesn't leave you wondering why the author bothered.

Steyn wasn't necessarily talking about fiction writers, of course, or those with "literary" ambitions, but I think his advice to do something is good for any stripe of writer who wants to avoid becoming someone "for whom words are props and codes and metaphors but no longer expressive of anything real." As someone else put it, the writer who never leaves his desk ends up writing odes to his desk lamp. Go out and raise dogs, as one of Steyn's suggestions had it, or grow vegetables, spend your summer break working construction or waiting tables in a truck stop, or even just spend a lot of time talking to people who don't have much in common with the people in your creative writing program. (Key point on that last bit would be to listen more than you talk.) Those of us humble readers who are in love with stories or who love to read nonfiction with some there there and who may be your future readers will thank you for it.

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