Monday, August 18, 2008

On Becoming a Writer

A person who will probably prefer to remain Anonymous writes—
Oh, never mind, the exact words don't matter. I get a few of these every Fall; this one merely jumped the gun by a few weeks. It's an energetic, highly emotional, poorly punctuated complaint about this person's Fall class schedule, leading up to a salvo of rhetorical questions asking what reading other people's novels and researching and writing papers about said novels has to do with becoming a writer.

Um... Everything?

Look, if you do not like to read other people's fiction and are not willing to do a little research once in a while and learn to think critically, you probably are not a good candidate to "become" a writer in the first place. But let's deal with the most pressing question first. If that bit about wanting to write so that you can "get the dark visions out of [your] head" before you hurt yourself or someone else was not just a dramatic flourish, you don't need to write, you need a therapy program. There are many good ones around. Find one. Now.

Assuming that was merely rhetorical overstatement, though: I'm increasingly of the opinion that one cannot go to college to learn to "become" a writer. One either is or is not a writer. You either need to write, and do so, or else you don't, and your time and your parent's tuition money is better employed pursuing something else.

You can learn to become a better writer. Writing is both an art and a craft, and the craft aspects can be taught. Most of us start out as pretty bad writers, but with time and diligence can learn to become better craftspersons. But majoring in Literature for four years, all the while complaining that your college does not offer a Creative Writing major, will not help you to "become" a writer. For that matter, even if you did end up with a four-year degree in Creative Writing from an institution with an accredited Creative Writing program, that would not make you a writer.

What makes you a writer is that you write. The fairy godmother with the magic wand who taps you on the head and pronounces you a real writer comes in the form of an acceptance letter from an editor, or a check from a publisher, or in fan mail from readers — or sometimes it never comes at all. I know of one very successful, best-selling, award-winning novelist who still harbors the secret fear that some day the world will find out that she doesn't really know what she's doing, she just does it, and then she'll have to give back all those lovely awards.

It is up to you, and you alone, to define the set of conditions that will enable you to say, with a straight face and without a trace of doubt or embarrassment, "I am a writer."

It does not come from majoring in Literature in college.

Don't misunderstand me. Studying Literature is good. Literature is the collective memory of our civilization; it is the common background that makes understanding and communication possible across age lines and social strata. Reading other people's writing and thinking critically about what makes it work will help you to become a better writer.

But majoring in Literature in order to "become" a writer is a waste of your time and your parent's money. Major in Journalism; learn to listen to people. Major in History; you have to know where we're coming from to imagine where we're going. Study architecture. Learn to throw a clay pot on a wheel. Do as one writer I know did and quit school for a semester, to follow the harvest as a migrant farm worker. Get off campus once in a while. Go places. See things. Meet people you wouldn't ordinarily meet. Read books that aren't assignments. Accept that as a 19- or 20-year-old in college, all the ideas in your head right now have come from someone else's books, movies, websites, or songs — or else from that possible dopamine imbalance, do get that checked out — and cultivate both patience and diligence.

But do not go to college in hopes that one day you will end up in the right section of the right class, where a fairy professor will whap you on the head with a magic wand and say, "You are now a Real Writer. Go forth and write!" Because that only happens in fantasy.