I have spent most of my scholastic life studying English—writing, literature, pretense, ego—and, mostly, it's all garbage. The English degree should not impress (not that most people consider us English majors with any special reverence), despite the fervent protestations from budding writers everywhere. But to my fellow English punks, you Bachelors and Masters alike, know this: we're not worth a goddamned thing. For all the erudite brilliance of Saul Bellow, the visceral sickness of Vladimir Nabokov, the absolute mastery of Dorothy Parker, their work and that like it amounts to very little—or, if my suspicions are correct, nothing. Something about wishing in one hand and crapping in the other...
The hours we have spent analyzing such works are wasted hours, hours we could have spent doing something useful like smoking cigarettes, or fucking. We have emulated the wrong people, idolized them without justification. Our attempts to forge our own ways into that echelon of writers good enough, or lucky enough, to serially hoodwink publishers into forking over hefty advances—and readers into sopping up whatever literary poisons we serve—have been exercises not only in futility but in insincerity.
It is the writer's charge these days to write cynical, sociopathic ad copy for Budweiser by day and by night to affect a sniveling egoism toward anyone who hasn't considered the synchystic merits of Finnegan's Wake. (I learned the word synchisis in class a couple of quarters ago. How impressive that I've used it in my own personal ramblings, eh? Extra credit! Furthermore, I haven't read more than a chapter of Finnegan's Wake; but since I am an English person, that is to say, a person engaged in the study of English, I am allowed to speculate regarding Joyce's novel without qualification, having considered at least the vague impressions of the English hive mind, which itself is made up of other consciousnesses that have also not bothered to read the entire book.)
We writers don't write for you; we write for us.
But that's an old rant, a holdover from my undergrad years. A graduate student, especially one at the tail end of his Masters degree, should know better than to throw around frivolous accusations and gross generalities, yes? Besides, the anti-writer writer is a bit of a cliché in and of itself; and, these days, I'm loath to call myself a writer at all. Writers write, after all. (Or, as I said more than a few years ago, "Writers write and shut the fuck up about it.")
But here's the nut of this thing: writing, in itself, is not the point. The point, of course, has more to do with what we write and, these days, whether we are qualified to write it. I've veered away from fiction recently precisely because it says less and less to me as time goes on (though it is a form I will probably always love). The echelon of great fiction writers, past and present, certainly have It, whatever It is—that mix of wit, perception, foresight, whatever. Most of us, however, don't have a thing to say because we haven't ever studied anything besides literature and writing: we haven't, you know, attempted to look at the world as it is and come to our own conclusions; we've filtered everything we know through our hero authors, who've parsed love, loss, pain, elation, reconciliation, and disgusting sex into neat little packets, which we consume greedily, believing we've gained something from the endeavor. And many times we have, but I suspect we overestimate the value of art in a vacuum.
We would almost certainly be better writers had we been forced—prior to ever enrolling in a writing course—to major in physics or history or geology, or dropped into the middle of a shark-infested reef with a nasty gash in one leg and a rusted Bowie knife strapped to the other. Those are the sorts of experiences that give you, well, experience, and furthermore, they provide what is perhaps the most lacking feature in my demographic of mediocre wordsmiths: frame of reference.
Do you really have anything to say about reality if you've spent your own steeped in abstractions and simplifications, both of which are inherently necessary to make any work of literature operate as a unit? What if you're like me? What if you've had it pretty easy relative to many of your peers, the well-cared-for life, so to speak, and had little more responsibility than to whip up eloquent-sounding papers on the Wife of Bath or on metaphor in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, which you never even finished? Do you, then, have any perspective that will help your fellow human? Maybe, in a very limited sense. But I'm not so sure.
Writing and literature students should be plucked from their cheap plastic seats, their pens violently wrenched from their hopeful fingers, their self-important smirks wiped off with the business end of a broad, hairy-knuckled hand. They should be put on a farm for braindead rejects, where, with a bit of luck and some elbow grease, they can work their way back into society—but not before being trapped in a pen with a rutting elk. Fight your way out of that, kid, and we'll set you up with a cushier gig in the kitchen, where you'll spend the next four years licking the plates clean and massaging antibiotic ointment into the fry cook's grease burns. Don't worry, though. You'll be able to put all of this on your resumé.
Because the sad thing is, most of us will not make a living doing this. Most of us won't even run a successful blog doing this (case in point). But you wouldn't know that with all the hopeful eyes about. If we're studying writing for our own personal edification or because we simply love it, that's fine; if we are taking a cue from my proposed Torture Farm Scenario, just in reverse—using writing to gain a skill set that complements our life in business or taxidermy—okay. My suspicion, however, is that we all think we've got something special to say, and probably a few of us (you) do. But I'd be willing to bet that number is much smaller than enrollment.
This is not a plea for anyone to stop writing—I'd feel rotten if it was—but it most certainly is a request to consider why we're in this racket at all and, if we're truly serious, what we're going to do about it. My advice: get interested in something else. We'll be better writers.
* Photo by seychelles88 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0): Underwood Portable Typewriter (1926)