Writing and Academia

I’ve been thinking about the arts and academia, heaven knows why. Perhaps it’s because I’m seeing parallels between my daughter’s architecture studies and those I went through in creative writing courses, and I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process. Anyway, I was watching Masterpiece Theater the other night (Inspector Lewis, yes!), and was struck for the first time by the creative freedom afforded Oxford art students. Yes, I know it’s a TV drama, but give me some latitude here. In contemplating the role of art schools in real life, I decided that sure, that’s the purpose of one’s college years, to produce and experiment with art in a way you’ll never get again because. . . . lo and behold, with the handing over of the diploma, you must cease playing in the art box and get a real job. One that pays the rent, etc. Accounting majors know this is coming, but art students avoid thinking about it as much as possible. (I confess this with complete pride: I have a BA in Art History, which qualifies me to recognize painters and movements and a few other bits and pieces here and there, and that’s it.)

The dichotomy between the real world and that of the artist at university solidified for me a few years ago when one of my offspring was undergoing the routine matriculation seminar mandatory for new freshmen and their parents . An announcement that grad students would now teach first year creative writing seminars set off cries of dismay from a parent sitting behind me. After we’d all trailed out of the finished seminar, I tracked the father down to try to reassure him. I had, in fact, many many years before taken those same beginning creative writing seminars from tenured profs with big reputations. In later classes, I been paired with grad students, and as far as I was concerned, it didn’t matter who taught the class. I reassured this agitated parent, who was paying, as I was painfully doing as well, big bucks to this private university so his child could graduate with the reputation of having studied in the top writing program in the country. I tried to tell him, obliquely and with Southern manners, which means thinly veiled ugly truths couched in sugary terms, that creative writing classes don’t teach you to write or how to publish. They don’t even teach plotting.

If you want to be a writer, you have to write and teach yourself what you need to know. Writing is the ultimate school of hard knocks. Finding out how to get past those first hundred pages and track the all-crucial plot points, dissect the hero’s journey and how to find the way into the cave, theme and character-driven v. plot driven – all of that isn’t going to be taught in a CW seminar. Lord help you if you want to find an agent and shop a book. The narrow focus of most CW teachers is in the literary and poetical world, a narrow strip in the publishing landscape and geared towards university presses, bless their hearts as we say in the South. That’s because that’s what those so-sincere CW teachers learned in their undergrad and MFA programs, and because the academic writing world is so incestuous, that’s what they produce in their students when it comes time to take the tenure track.

Writers need to write, to live, to get out in the world and hear different speech patterns, meet people who haven’t heard of W.H. Auden and don’t give a damn about a library card. Living life makes a good writer a better writer. I have friends who were extolled and praised to the roof top in CW classes who today haven’t done a blamed thing with their writing. Once released from the cotton-wool cocoon of academia, they found the real world of publishing to be a cruel and vicious creature that eats its young. Definitely not for such delicately nurtured artistic souls as they.

A few years after that seminar for freshmen, I tried to steer a young woman just graduating from college towards an agent who specializes in paranormal books. This young woman had been working on the manuscript in high school and college. I didn’t know if it was any good, but I gave her props for wanting to get it published. For an hour I discussed marketability and query letters, how to write a tight synopsis, how to make her pitch in person. She’d learned none of this in all the years she’d studied creative writing, even though her stated goal was publication of this magnus opus. I felt sorry for her, and for all the other writers who thought they’d graduate with everything they needed to know about how to survive the publishing world. What writer wants to keep her words to herself? Not a blamed one of us, if we’re honest. We have a story to tell, a truth to reveal, and the world will be better off if it can find us in a book store, at least that’s the way I feel.

While spending four years writing angsty poetry and obscure prose is fun, it isn’t where the real writing world reposes. So don’t worry who teaches what classes, because the true writing work starts when the diploma is on the wall. Then, a real writer will get down to the brass tacks of the job and figure it out, or quit. As the cliché puts it so well, it’ll be time to fish or cut bait. And little if nothing learned in academia will land the big fish.