Notes on Optimism, Books on Writing Craft

There is a constant need for optimism when working in creative fields. I pick the word need intentionally. In my relatively long working life, I’ve never run into a field before in which there are so many people that are willing to tell you how shitty you are, how the odds are against you, and why should probably stop and just go back to whatever mindless job you were doing before.

Bear with me. I swear I’ll get to the optimism. Eventually.

My writing group, The Smug Buttholes (TSB), has been doing a book club of sorts where we read about the craft of writing. I won’t provide a list because A) you probably don’t care and B) I can’t remember all of them. Most have been both informative and inspirational and prose focused. The book we’re finishing up, Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, has been wonderfully informative. Knowing the vocabulary and mechanics of poetry has demystified it and helped me overcome an aversion I’ve held for years. When you can see how the wizard works the spell, it’s easier to release the fear and appreciate the magic.

But…

In the very opening lines of the introduction, Mary Oliver says, “Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school.” She’s using no irony here and goes on to say, “Something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given or earned or formulated in a manner too mysterious to be picked apart and redesigned for the next person.” If you pick apart that second line (and I believe that poets expect you to pick apart everything) you can generously interpret it to say that you can learn the fundamentals, but that only helps to get you to the epiphany of understanding. One could also read it as saying, you’re going to be a shitty poet unless you’re born with certain qualities. At first, that made me furrow my brow but I dismissed it because I have no intention of writing poetry.

The next book TSB is taking on is the classic: John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I was pretty excited because I’ve been hearing great things so I dug in as soon as I picked up my copy. Jesus Christ, John Gardner! I won’t retch up the entirety of the first two paragraphs of the preface, but they contain gems like:

  • …the ability to write well is partly a gift…writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing
  • a smart chimp with a good creative-writing teacher and a real love of sitting around banging a typewriter could have written books vastly more interesting and elegant [than most of what’s published]
  • The instruction here is not for every kind of writer–not for the writer of nurse books or thrillers or porno or the cheaper sort of sci-fi
  • Not everyone is capable of writing junk fiction: it requires an authentic junk mind.

I know that Gardner became well known later in his career for publishing inflammatory literary criticism and was shouted down by many big names in fiction. I also know he was loved by most of his students. But why Why WHY start this book with the aggrandizement of teachers and the disparagement of writers without an MFA?

Don’t get me wrong. I love teachers. Much of my extended family and many of my best friends are teachers. But do I really need a prick with Ph.D. to pull down his literary underpants and moon me from the grave? It’s an issue that I’m sure I’m sensitive about because I don’t have an MFA and never will. It bothers me that there are teachers out there that will intentionally discourage creative people because they haven’t sat in a lecture hall. Or if they have, they haven’t sat in the right lecture hall. There is an entire industry that preys on people who want to be writers. Statements made by figures like John Gardner help to fuel the fear that causes people to spend tens of thousands of dollars they don’t have to get talked at by people who aren’t qualified. It pisses me off.

But I’m optimistic. I will traditionally publish a novel and it will likely be the cheaper sort of sci-fi or thriller or porno (probably not porno). People I don’t know will read it and be entertained. Some will think it’s great and some will hate it. I encourage you to do the same. Take the good stuff from writers like Oliver and Gardner and leave the rest behind.

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