Get a job.
July 20, 2002 6:05 AM   Subscribe

Get a job. This fella argues that to be a good writer (and by extension artist of any kind) you have to be out in the world of work and humdrum living. It's a big mistake, he says, to train writers as "writers" in little hothouse workshops. Exposure to the brawny world of work should be part of a writer's education. This, he suggests, is why so much modern fiction bites the weenie. (It does not, however, explain his own inability to compose a more coherent essay.) In any case, to get a job, or not get a job, THAT is the artist's question... (from Arts Journal Daily)
posted by Faze (37 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The labouring classes certainly aren't very interested in contemporary fiction, and so contemporary writers in turn ignore them

? I presume by labouring classes he means those who have any kind of job at all? Is that not about 98% of the population? Who else is buying comtemporary fiction? I don't get it.
posted by Summer at 6:18 AM on July 20, 2002

i moved to chile at the start of this year (i feel i mention chile a lot in my posts here - i'm sorry, but i just talk about what i know, and that's my life) and had an argument with a (chilean) friend who had lived abroad for a few years about whether or not i should get a job. her argument was that it's the only way to really get to know people; mine that life is more than just work, that if i didn't work i'd have more time to create what i wanted to create, and that i could get to know other aspects of chilean life through that.

anyway, for financial and visa reasons, i did get a job (although i had two glorious months without first). and it's been one of the hardest experiences of my life - the forced immersion in the reality of chilean society has been amazingly stressful (it's hard to explain why - there's no one big thing, it's just the steady dripping of broken expectations and basic assumptions that make every day so demanding).

i was talking to her again at a party last weekend and i had to admit that she was right. work has forced me to integrate in a way that i doubt any other activity could achieve (the pain reflects this).

the party was our housewarming and so there were both chilean guests (friends and students of my chilean partner, my co-workers) and gringos (european or american astronomers living here on 3 year contracts). despite the gringos being people who are trying to learn spanish, get on with people etc etc, and the chileans being mainly students/academics, used to dealing with foreigners, there was an obvious gulf between the the two groups - a gulf that i felt i was able to cross (albeit not completely successfully at times).

after the party i started wondering about the gringo friends. they all seem to be like permanent tourists. i haven't found a better description than that - there's something uncomitted and removed about their outlook on life.

(i'm hoping the parallels with that article are obvious and that this appears to have some relevance to others! in particular, i think the tourist idea is useful - you can consider writers without "real jobs" who write about "the working classes" as travel writers describing a foreign culture. a certain cultural distance may be useful).
posted by andrew cooke at 6:50 AM on July 20, 2002

(oops - missing fact that makes the above more consistent. gringo astronomers, while having a "job" here, actually work in a closed compound full of europeans, speaking english etc)
posted by andrew cooke at 6:58 AM on July 20, 2002

That they cultivate a generic style of professional "literary" writing is what bothers me most about them.

I am not advocating the writing of a great proletarian novel. It is unlikely there will ever be a return to documentary realism in fiction. The current literary landscape seems dominated by the resurgence of the "new journalism" school of non-fiction and some variety of magic (or rather "television") realism.

my focus in college was creative writing. there is the good, the bad, and the ugly to writing workshops - it can be a supportive environment to develop, test, and refine; can have a tendency to normalize style; and the group can display passive and aggressive hostility to enforce its literary norms.

marxist implications aside, i think writers/artists do seek 'real world' experiences. it's a different motivation - working for a psychic hotline (i did) or porn store isn't just another degrading job, you delude yourself into believing the experience provides insight, fodder, and inspiration. sometimes it works.

i've moved on from that psychic gig, still get the urge to learn how to drive a truck and travel cross country, and i'm still among the proletarian masses - stringing together words like dead bees.
posted by priyanga at 7:23 AM on July 20, 2002

Regarding workshopping: Stephen King said in a radio interview, No oysters ever got together and decided how best to make a pearl.

I believe it is more productive for writers to spend their days in in ways that best influence their writing technique, style and message, rather than in ways that accumulate stories, factoids, characters or scenes. I do not mean writing classes, reading circles, creative writing degrees. I mean they should consciously increase their exposure to the variations of the world in order to ensure that they are differently informed than the mainstream, while at the same time developing a generalized understanding of that mainstream useful in writing work of interest and relevance to it. Those people who list 43 different jobs in divergent industries on the dust jacket of their first novel seem to me to have only gone out into the world in a hunt for stories, rather than for personal or professional development. You've got to commit to the enterprise in order for it to affect you (confirmed by Andrew's "permanent tourist" comments above). While job-hopping is certainly interesting, it creates a rather shallow well of material to work from, rather than creating a profound experience which, when applied to the mainstream, will repeatedly produce the inspiration for great stories. A writer who experiences different facets of human culture in the deepest immersion possible--not as the "chronicler" such as is seen in so many books and movies--is changed. They become more unlike their home-tied peers attending writing circles, yet better able to relate to the world at large, even to their own native milieu. We are not, after all, talking only about extreme measures such as working on an oil field in Tajikistan, but merely diversifying daily tasks.

A writer's goal should be to successfully drop out of the writerly culture. The quality of writing doesn't appear to be affected by whether you work (although the volume certainly does). There are many kinds of experience. What the article might have better addressed was, When will writers get off their fat asses, abandon their lit circle jerks, and actually experience the world, rather than struggling to recreate it, badly, out of whole cloth in their heads? You don't have to travel, you just have to participate rather than observe.
posted by TurkeyMustard at 7:24 AM on July 20, 2002

Hm, I think you've touched an aspect of the life of the expat more than anything.

This sentiment is not, of course, new -- as long as there have been workshops, there have been anti-workshop sentiments. I can't remember who wrote it, but I swear it was somebody unexpected ... Annie Dillard? Hm. There's this Andre Dubus piece. And of course there are any number of unpublished first novels which were about their terrible writer's workshop experience. And you've had people from Thoreau to Kerouac seek their own way of getting at material.
posted by dhartung at 7:26 AM on July 20, 2002

This is a possibly great thread but it's pity the link is shit. However links are really only an excuse for getting us talking, right? Any of us who have ever had dreams of writing know that our models are not second rate novelists (you all know that Oscar Wilde quote) if you don't start off wanting to be Joyce-Kafka-Proust-Kerouac-Lorca-Beckett well I just call your shit. Let's looks at them. Joyce, from a wealthy family lived in misery but to his credit was totally blind (literally) to anything else than his art. Kafka worked as an insurance agent because he didn't even want his work to be published. Proust wouldn't have been published if he hadn't paid for it himself. Lorca never worked a day in his life and got shot for being a gay supporter of the Spanish republic, while I'm sure he would have preferred to have been shot for his political views. Kerouac once fainted after manual labour of one week without having been paid or fed, possibly the most workmanlike of the list, and Samuel Beckett somehow made money from his Art but lived on a few glasses of cognac a day until his face was really the stuff of great posters.
Fairly different stories right. I think that if anyone has ever held them as personal examples as regards writing, none of the things I have said had anything to do with it. Are we talking about art here or just Stephen King?
posted by Zootoon at 8:00 AM on July 20, 2002

Are we talking about art here or just Stephen King?

ooh, tagline alert!
posted by y2karl at 8:40 AM on July 20, 2002 [1 favorite]

In my opinion, the secret to good writing is to write a lot. Write every day, about everything, and present it in a medium that provides feedback. Over time writing improves ('improves' based on the standards of the feedback audience you're using).

School is good for this, if you want to learn to write papers that professors like. If you want to write things that normal people like, a weblog's a good idea...
posted by kfury at 8:51 AM on July 20, 2002

Is there any reason to believe there's a "right" way to be a writer? If one writer wants to write for a literary-minded reader, what's wrong with that? And if that's what you want to do, do you still need to flip burgers to learn how to do it?

I get the impression this fellow is, more than anything, lamenting that so many writers aren't talented enough for his tastes. Which is ... a bummer -- but he doesn't have to read them.
posted by mattpfeff at 9:08 AM on July 20, 2002

About as much as there's a "right" way to hold one's pen.
posted by rushmc at 9:14 AM on July 20, 2002

I think the 'secret' (if there is one - or only one - LOL) is in finding your own voice... sometimes admist the swirl of activities around you - whether that means getting a job, or withdrawing or whatnot, is a personal thing. Excellent writing, to me, usually communicates/expresses the uniqueness with which the author sees the world around her/him. Sometimes a lot of writing is about people trying to FIND their voice - in that case, writing a LOT (and paying attention, of course), definitely helps.

Personally, I think the 'lack of business fiction' mentioned in the article is probably because if you're IN business, you are far too focused on business to write, even if you have a passing interest in writing. And if you're writing ABOUT business, you probably are way too observant of the whole system, rather than totally immersed or possessed by it, which might not make you such a good businessman. LOL. (Generalizing, I know - just off the top of my head.)

Having a job CAN help a person define themselves OR it can help them lose themselves in a mass reality framework - again, it depends on the person. In many ways, this article reminds me of people pining for the supposed Metafilter "golden days" - LOL. The author says that most writers these days don't even know how the world works (paraphrasing) - I bet they know how THEY think the world works, and it's just not the same perspective that the author holds and seems to think is so universal.
posted by thunder at 9:26 AM on July 20, 2002

Some practical advice from a professional writer on the day job issue. (Scroll down to question number 10)
posted by tdismukes at 9:42 AM on July 20, 2002

"Everybody gets told to write about what they know. The trouble with many of us is that at the earlier stages of life we think we know everything- or to put it more usefully, we are often unaware of the scope and structure of our ignorance."

-Thomas Pynchon, from intro to 'Slow Learner"
posted by clavdivs at 10:00 AM on July 20, 2002

My thoughts on business-oriented fiction also.

Like the old saying goes, "If you don't live it, it won't come out your horn."

There is also a question in my mind whether going straight into a writing program after undergrad years is a recipe for producing truly worldly novels. Publishing houses seem to respond to readers' preferences for genre fiction, and for stories focused on personal affairs and relationships rather than broader themes. However, editors admit that literature can be many things, and you may not know what people will buy till you try it ... It's been a surprise to discover that science fiction and young adult literature are two places a casual reader will often run into issue-oriented plots.

Word processing is a great boon, but double-income lifestyle and extended work hours can certainly cramp any writer's output. The essay raises an interesting point, whether creating a class of writers dependent on full-time official patronage is the key to fostering great literature. My guess is that what's more important is making it possible for aspiring writers to continue in their craft even despite the lesser focus on their day jobs.

Credit should also be given to psychiatrists bold enough to say that suddenly taking three days off to write twenty pages is not always a sign of sheer irresponsibility and manic depression-- it may, in rare instances, indicate a brief moment of genius when one is possessed by the muse.
posted by sheauga at 10:03 AM on July 20, 2002

I don't know about any other writers, but as far as I am concerned, writing is work enough. From a late medieval manuscript:

"Careful with your fingers! Don't touch writing! You don't know what it is to write. It's a crushing task; it bends your spine, blurs your eyesight, creases your stomach, and cracks your ribs."
posted by muckster at 10:13 AM on July 20, 2002

One interesting subtopic brought to mind here is the whole idea of 'work' and what it really represents. While a job can provide one with experience of accomplishing narrowly-defined tasks, that's only a small part of it. The other -- and, I would argue, more significant part -- is all about getting to know those you work with, how to communicate with them, etc. Having a job provides one with exposure to many whose life is quite different from one's own.

Even in the 'work' part of a job, getting the task accomplished is often less than straightforward, and involves tactics and strategies which can often seem quite germane to the actual task at hand.

The idea that a job, and the performance of it, are a straight-line process is a great fallacy. But then it's something everyone must experience for him/herself.
posted by clevershark at 11:08 AM on July 20, 2002

At least at the undergraduate level, "standards" in creative writing programs may have little to do with the actual writing, and everything to do with the student's participation in the workshopping process. It isn't clear to me if MFA programs are much different in that regard. In other words, it isn't necessarily the case that the workshop experience produces writing that anyone likes, the professor included.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:09 AM on July 20, 2002

Jon has kindly let me borrow his good name and encouraged me to post on this thread, in part, I suppose, because he served out a rather miserable two-year sentence in Miami, FL, with me while I got my MFA. As he's fond of saying, "You lived in the Univ. of Miami. I lived in the real Miami..." He's got a point. He went to work every day, talked to long-term Miami residents, dealt with rush-hour traffic and strange white buckets swarming with flies behind the near-empty strip mall where he worked. He's the one who could, very likely, write a more authentic Miami story. I taught creative writing to undergraduates, sat through rather tedious graduate workshops, slogged through indecipherable lit crit, and wrote 25 page seminar papers which, of course, no one will ever read. Then again, I loved teaching, and I now have the confidence (sort of) to make it a career, along with writing (hopefully) -- though, not in a lush, green academic haven with flocks of Monk parakeets and white heron, but as a high school English teacher in the Bronx, which, more and more, I think I prefer, for the sheer variety of my day, if nothing else.

So, am I glad for the Miami experience? Well, yes and no (I'm "trained" to see both sides of an issue, after all). On the one hand, I got to attend workshops with Yusef Komunyakaa and Edwidge Danticat, sip dirty martinis at Fox's, eat Cuban sandwiches with chest-hair-sprouting Cuban coffee (I'm still feeling the buzz), swivel my hips to salsa music at Mango's on South Beach (or at least watch others swivel theirs), hang out at one of the best bookstores in the world, Books and Books, and, of course, drive four hours south over the causeways from island to island to the penultimate Key West, where Jon and I drank one-too-many Rum Runners, ate conch fritters, and watched the sunset on the square. On the negative side, Jon was, for the most part, very unhappy, homesick and out-of-work for a long time; I am now many thousands of dollars in debt thanks to student loans (those graduate stipends don't go very far); and, come to think of it, we probably would've been much happier if I'd applied to a program in NYC. I don't know, I guess I just wanted to get away; my Dad had just died and I was a little nuts, I think. At the time, Jon wanted to escape for a while, too. I suppose the MFA experience is different for everyone, depending on what you bring to it and how disciplined a writer you're willing to be while you're there. I do think it's better, in general, for writers to be "out in the world," since, to write, one needs to have something to say. But all kinds of experience, I think, whether factory or suburb, are potential banana peels for the "writerly compost pile." I do recommend attending an MFA program somewhat later in life, if possible -- late twenties, early thirties, at least. It can be a nice "hiatus," and it can free up a good block of time to write, if you're smart about it, which I wasn't, but some of my classmates were. Of course, you don't need an MFA program to write; Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying while working in a factory.

One final word, and then I'll shut up (what do I know, anyway??). I do think there's a distinction between living in the "Ivory Tower" or campus oasis permanently, and just taking a two or three year time-out. I do notice that, for those writers who are supposedly lucky enough to get a tenured faculty position at a university, generally after they've published at least a book or two (often more), their writing tends to suffer (again, a generalization, to be sure, but I've seen it first-hand many, many times). It's easy to let ten years or more slip by, teaching classes, going to faculty meetings, taking summers off. The potential is there for getting caught in a rather comfortable snare. I got my MFA, in part, in anticipation of getting such a "cushy" job someday (the equivalent, maybe, of a court musician), but now, I'm not sure I'd want it. Of course, nobody's knockin' as of yet. If writing is so important to me, though, why do I spend so little time putting pen to paper or fingers to keys? I love it, and yet I don't do it. I write poetry, but my unfinished novel languishes. Am I just lazy? Are there things in that novel I'm avoiding? I don't know... I think I'll go reheat my coffee and forget about it for a while.

(Posted by mrsjonmc, aka, pips -- my Dad's old nickname for me). P.S. -- Please forgive me, some of my links are being tempermental.
posted by jonmc at 11:27 AM on July 20, 2002

The kernel of truth here is this: we'd rather not read short stories (or first novels) about grad students in writing programs.

But that's about it.

From a practical point of view, there is much to be said for workshops. First of all, they provide space, time, and a community of people to whom writing matters. Also, there are hundred things beginning writers have to learn, mostly things not to do. TS Eliot said somewhere that there are two kinds of young writers: the ones with a lot to say, and the ones who love words and sentences. It's the second group who tend to grow into good writers: they hone their craft, and the subject matter arrives, by itself, with age. It's a fallacy to assume that those living working class lives are somehow more authentic, more worthy of fictionalization, than the "hipsters from Slackerville." There is nothing glamorous about being a starving artist. I've worked night shifts on the factory floor, and they're overrated. Perhaps if Mr. Good is hungry for different subject matter, he should scour the library for a book that interests him (Dos Passos?) rather than telling people how to do their jobs, how to live their lives. At any rate, writers aren't reporters. Whatever happened to the power of the imagination? To "nothing human is foreign to me?"

Sheauga, your writer rushing home for three days of genius is a nice romantic idea, but how realistic is that, really? Inspiration happens when you sit at your desk, not the other way around. Unless you have vast amounts of time to spend on your word processor, you're very likely to miss the good moments. In my experience, the muse doesn't suddenly arrive; she has to be coaxed and courted, wined, dined, kicked in the head and beaten into submission. It's dirty, lonely, and time-consuming work, and every writer has to come to terms with that on their own. This is not a world that, on the whole, encourages or rewards artists, and we should be grateful for any havens and safe houses it affords us. Let Barbara Ehrenreich flip all the burgers she wants: if Yaddo or Iowa make it easier for you, by all means go -- even if Alex Good doesn't approve of that "lifestyle."

And pips, go and dig out your novel. It's a lot better than you think.
posted by muckster at 12:09 PM on July 20, 2002

For bloody Christ's sake I hope we're talking about more than Stephen King. Though I consider "The Stand" (the unexpurgated version) in my top 1000 books of all time, the bulk of his work is merely an entry point: that kind of writing that can introduce an untutored mind to a higher level of writing for the masses, and possibly lead them to explore higher literature.

A friend of mine claims that effective writers come from a position of security, even wealth. While of course there's no one way to be a great writer, the idea of a secure job that subsidizes the writing habit is an appealing one. Too many creative types I know are near beggars: their minds and time are filled with the pursuit of rent money, a pint, cigarettes. Their output is dismally thin, too introspective, lacking in any relationship to the rest of the world. They don't have the mental strength to overcome their physical condition.

My usual response to him, not because I completely disagree, is that there's something more interesting about those impoverished, drunken, imprisoned or otherwise beleaguered writers when they work at the same stylistic and technical level of the secure writers. Talent and skill being equal, I'm more likely to give the gimp or fuck-up the first chance at a read than I am a trustfundian, Ivory tower academic, a famous child of, or anyone of the type. (Of course, when the two archtypes overlap, you sometimes get hot burning light, sometimes just limp pages). This is because of my interest in learning from the differently informed.

Overall, my distrust of writing programs is informed by the types of people I see in them. They are people fascinated with the idea of being a writer but not particularly endowed with the exceptional level of skill required to do the actual writing.
posted by TurkeyMustard at 12:29 PM on July 20, 2002

mrsjonmc, go beat your muse into submission.

My father is a writer. He also worked his entire life at various jobs. His volume of work isn't large, but it is respectable.

I have two points to make. The first is that writing for him was not that easy. Writing was/is just as much work as his day job was. I think in some ways it was harder since the results were sometimes so long in coming and not always what he expected. I can't imagine that not having a day job would have been such a wonderful thing for him--nothing is more irritating than watching your hand do nothing with that pen or typewriter or computer.

My other point somewhat contradicts the first one. It may be cliched, but writers are notorious for having "problems", be that drug and alcohol, depression, schizoid behaviours or social ineptitude. The jury may be out as to whether these things helped make certain writers great or not, but it's not much of a leap in logic to assume that at least some of these people wouldn't have been able to hold down jobs because of their "problems".

This doesn't mean that writers without a day job are necessarily bad. What it means is that their fiction is, in the words of the Deal article, "necessarily limited."

This statement leads me to believe that the author of the article actually does believe that modern day writing is bad. I wasn't aware that fiction was in such a horrible state. Is this something that only writers and critics know about? I may agree with him that writers may not be in touch with the majority of their readers, but that does not mean that the readers aren't in touch with the writers, which is equally important.

Can anyone tell me what "business oriented fiction" is? Maybe provide some examples? It doesn't sound all that interesting to me, though it's not fair to evaluate something I've never heard of. Would this be John Grisham type stuff? I dunno.
posted by ashbury at 12:40 PM on July 20, 2002

Business-oriented fiction? How about The Corrections, which won the National Book Award for 2001? It's at least fiction that involves the world of business pretty heavily, even if in an intentionally absurdist fashion.
posted by raysmj at 12:53 PM on July 20, 2002

A writer's goal should be to successfully drop out of the writerly culture.

Pish posh. A writer's goal is to write. That's all.
posted by muckster at 1:01 PM on July 20, 2002

Thanks for the disagreement, muckster, but I'll stand by that statement until I start seeing more work in the stores that doesn't stink of process, reek of academic mumbo-jumbo, or have another, more famous, writer's name in the title. In an article about corporate scandal, Malcolm Gladwell wrote, "Groups don't write great novels, and a committee didn't come up with the theory of relativity." Those groups are just as much the Elaine's crowd and the editorial content of the book reviews as they are the writing labs and writing schools.

The reason I thank you for your disagreement is because your short statement contains its own defeat: you appear to define a writer as "one who writes." Now, pish-posh to that. A writer is someone who communicates through writing. There are many self-named writers who write what read with all the life and intelligence of talk show transcripts. Writing is the best media for the transference of new ideas (or new-to-you ideas), and that is inhibited by transmitting the same old ideas of the member group, even that of the surrounding writerly culture.
posted by TurkeyMustard at 2:19 PM on July 20, 2002

Poisonally, I would disagree with the writer in the link. I think we live in a great age of fiction. Michael Chabon, Philip Roth, Francine Prose, John Updike, Louis B. Jones. These giants walk the earth TODAY. Along with a whole lot of giants of only slightly lesser stature. Someone's doing something right. (By the way, "Lloyd" (1998) by Stanley Bing is a very funny, well-written novel set in the world of business.)
posted by Faze at 2:24 PM on July 20, 2002

Expressiveness in writing ... sometimes found through travel or circumstance, not simply technique.
posted by sheauga at 4:48 PM on July 20, 2002

Wait! People can afford to be writers and not work? When did this happen? Where do I sign up?

-This leads to reason why I hated the premise behind Nickled and Dimed. A writer decides she's going to get a job at the lowest paying jobs in a given city and try to live off it.

The thing is, there are plenty of poor (and suprisingly skilled) writers who are working those jobs but don't have the background that would allow them to get their books published (having attended ivy league schools or advanced degrees for example).

-Hemmingway said that a writer should only pay attention to the works that are established classics. To follow the current trends (which workshopping often makes you do) will lead to subpar and entirely forgettable literature.

Though on the other hand, some of the greatest works of art have been created while trying to copy another's piece and failing brilliantly.

-Should writers, musicians and artists have to work (to widen the question)? Yes, but because they have to, not with a safety net knowledge that they have a wealth that can pull them out at any moment- which will merely make the situation superficial. Instead, they should work because they need to work, in order to survive. To know poverty is to be forced to find beauty in the tiniest things.
posted by drezdn at 4:50 PM on July 20, 2002

I'm surprised that Good quotes Noah Richler's recent editorial at length, when his father Mordecai Richler would be an exception to Good's points. Mordecai was published at a young age and didn't have a lot of work experience, but he never fell into the trap of writing academic "ivory tower" fiction, and Duddey Kravitz is one of the great fictional young entrepreneurs in fiction.

I also disagree with the "write what you know" crowd. Oliver stone wrote one of the best screenplays about the business world, "Wall Street", but he wasn't a stock broker (although his father was). I'm sure most novelist have never been private investigators or police detectives but there are no shortage of novels about those professions.

I also think Good maybe mixing up cause and effect. Good seems to think people are unable to hold down boring regular jobs because they want to be writers. I think it may be people become writers because they've failed at holding down regular jobs. I think ashbury hit the nail on the head talking about writers "problems".

Aside from this, I think there would be a big market for a big fictional "business novel" set in the world of corrupt high flying multi-billion corporations, maybe a "Primary Colors" of the business world. The "business novel" is also a popular genre in japanese fiction, it's too bad there doesn't seem to be as many books in that genre in English.
posted by bobo123 at 6:22 PM on July 20, 2002

drezdn: To know poverty is to be forced to find beauty in the tiniest things. Although I know what you are trying to say here, poverty is not REQUIRED to attain this state of awareness - it CAN be done in other ways, deliberately choosing to find beauty wherever you look, for instance, although money IS often a 'distraction' in that sense - it isn't always.

I also want to add that (going off on a tangent here) 'working society' isn't the ONLY valid perspective, even if it seems to be the most 'popular'. A writer who expresses their true 'voice' of growing up wealthy will have a different but completely valid perspective of 'life' - and it may NOT involve commentary or interaction with 'working society' even. Maybe something like - I don't know (not very 'literary') - Emily Dickinson just stayed in her room and wrote poems all day, yes? LOL. So, while wealth can be an easy excuse not to push yourself into attaining excellence in creative expression or even in finding yourself, not everyone takes that path when wealthy... Anyway.... ;-)
posted by thunder at 6:48 PM on July 20, 2002

Although I know what you are trying to say here, poverty is not REQUIRED to attain this state of awareness

Agreed, a person with a different outlook on life will write interesting things regardless of the surroundings they grow up in. Not all poor people our great artists, nor all rich people disconnected from the masses.

To connect with a wide audience, a certain understanding (think Bruce Springsteen in music or Kerouac in Lit) is required to connect to a broad range of people. Did Springsteen fight in Vietnam, or get laid off from an auto plant...? No, But he could empathize.
posted by drezdn at 7:31 PM on July 20, 2002

Interaction with live humans may be optional -- as witness this author adrift in a less intellectual corner of cyberspace:
"Sinha's descent into the inferno is painstakingly documented in Cybergypsies, which, even at a hefty 391 pages, weaves a fluid tale of the competing worlds of physical reality and ..."
Yo, Miguel Cardoso! Sound familiar? Jump in here, and tell us all how to become great writers. We're so dreadfully bored by our Disembodied Poetics, our MacArthur Fellowships, and The Breadloaf Writer's Conference. We need inspiration from one of our own! We demand Miguel Cardoso's leadership to help us join the world's Ngugi wa Thiong'os in creating the next golden age of literature ...
posted by sheauga at 7:40 PM on July 20, 2002

I say that this idea of writers being better at their craft and more able to tap into the issues their readers care about because they work is overrated. I think the only pre-requisite for writing things that other people can relate to is being in relationships with other people. If you have family, friends, you have hopes, disappointments, complicated entangled relationships. Being in touch with people is all you need to be able to create material others can connect with. And work - ironically - can put you out of touch with people. If you are a 9-5 worker at a low-wage job or even an office, you might have less time of human contact (or human contact that you have might be limited to formal business interactions.) Is it no coincidence that much of great literature reflects more upon personal relations than work. If you read Tolstoy or Chekhov, there are lots of scenes of people interacting at parties or get-togethers, going hunting, and juts regular scenes with family. And how often are there scenes of people at work - sitting at their desk, writing papers or serving food or anything of that sort? Very few - the things that interest both readers and writers are the interactions between family and friends - not acquintances at the workplace who aren't very chummy with each other. If the guy who wrote the article we are discussing seeks the latter, he can turn on to sitcoms - Drew Carey, Just Shoot Me, Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place (dont quote me on these - i havent watched much tv lately and these references recall what i've seen years ago)
posted by gregb1007 at 8:40 PM on July 20, 2002 [1 favorite]

This has been the most amazing post, with the best comments, that I've ever had the privilege of reading on Metafilter. I particularily wish to thank tdismukes for the link to John Scalzi, whose advice was exactly what I need to read right now in my writerly/day job career dilemma. And to mrsjonmc, thank you for writing about the academic approach to writing from a first-person perspective, it was definitely more inspiration for me. I'm on my way to Copperfield's to buy a Writer's Market as soon as I can get into town again. Thanks to all for the insightful comments!
posted by Lynsey at 9:13 PM on July 20, 2002

This lament that creative writing workshops are at the root of some perceived decline in our literature is an oft-repeated one (in fact, it was just repeated in The Washington Post); given that, you'd think he could've written a more direct, less insufferably pretentious version of it. Good himself was an academic; he got his Ph.D in English in 1996. It seems a little bizarre to me that he's telling writers to git out in the world and do some 'real' work in that context.

I just graduated from a college where I concentrated in creative writing. It was a great experience. I got to work with Edmund White and Joyce Carol Oates, two career writers who have spent significant time as teachers (and, in Oates's case, have practically never been outside, superficially speaking, of the arts establishment and the 'Ivory Tower'). And the big lesson I got out of it was that writing well, which is very difficult, is something which, though not teachable per se, is nonetheless 'facilitate-able.' There is nothing wrong with giving people space and time to work on their writing. Some writers give themselves space by taking jobs that allow them time for writing; others give themselves space through an academic program.

This attitude always seems to me like a weird kind of snobbery-in-reverse, since it usually comes from highly educated critics (like Good) blasting writers for being too educated. It's hard to take seriously when you look at an author like William Faulkner, who worked odd jobs for most of his early life, spent his time in the company of writers, booksellers and academics, and even spent time as an RAF cadet (something Good is quick to pounce on when we're talking about Timothy Taylor, not William Faulkner). I think it's hard to claim that the vitality and relevance of Faulkner's novels stemmed from his work experience as a postmaster. As Henry James says, what makes a writer great is that he cares, observes, notices, and thinks. It's certainly not whether or not he worked in a bar or as a stockbroker; that's, factually, rubbish.

As an aside I'll note: the reason there aren't more 'business novels' is because, I would suspect, there don't need to be! Nowadays when every grandma watches the NASDAQ and every non-fiction book published is about business there is not much to be written there. Business culture today is everywhere, and so self-involved in its own way . . . . What would a business novel be about? Leveraging the supply chain to synergistically produce on-budget granulated deliverables? If you want fiction about business you can always read Fast Company.
posted by josh at 9:27 PM on July 20, 2002

I think there are two parts to good writing: the craft and the content. And it takes two different parts of my brain to work through each. There is an art to telling a story.

I started writing because, as an artist who has a full time job and a full time family, writing was relatively easy to fit into my limited time. And I found it could satisfy my needs to be creative.

I would agree that the more you write, the better you get. My "style" grew out of my subject matter (my life of course) and my desire to write as if I was having a conversation with a group of close associates (some friends, some acquaintances). For better or worse, that's what comes out.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 5:59 AM on July 21, 2002

The John Grishams of this world aside, having a job does not necessarily lead to "business fiction", any more than being of one gender necessarily prevent someone from having a clue about what's going on on the other side of the fence...

My point is that the more people one meets in the course of their daily lives, the more diverse one's life experience, and thus (probably) the more rounded one's stories become. If my entire day revolved around 'literary types' my view of people who have not read War and Peace might well be a simplistic and caricaturistic one, or a condescending one, and neither of these views would have much validity outside my own limited experience.
posted by clevershark at 5:54 PM on July 21, 2002

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