Give Up Now, Young Writer

Kurt Vonnegut

Don't listen to this man.

I was 15 when Kurt Vonnegut blew my mind. Good timing. I had never read anything so fantastically alive as Cat’s Cradle, his apocalyptic story of invented religion in a banana republic. At the time, I had just recently converted from being an obsessive TV-watcher to, inexplicably, an in-over-my-head bookworm. Now, with Vonnegut in hand, I realized I had to be a writer.

In the course of consuming his entire corpus, though, I got stopped with indigestion. I forget which book. But in it, in passing, he says that writers are born, not made. Something to that effect. Promptly, I made sure to read and hate Timequake, decide that his whole dumb, cynical world wasn’t somewhere I wanted to live, and never read him again.

I wanted to be a writer, and I hadn’t really written anything good yet, so my only choice was to conclude Vonnegut was an idiot. An old, depressed idiot who couldn’t even cheer himself up with his own hilarious jokes.

Which brings us, of all places, to Louis Menand’s essay in the June 8th New Yorker, “Show or Tell” (just the other day I, it’s true, I told a writer, in my editorial capacity, “Show, don’t tell”; ugh!). It’s a journey into that devilish question for all those legions who set out for the grand abstraction of being a Writer without having written anything readable: can writing be learned? Or, more institutionally, asks The New Yorker, “Should creative writing be taught?”

The renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Menand observes, pretty much says no.

Iowa merely admits people who are really good at writing; it puts them up for two years; and then, like the Wizard of Oz, it gives them a diploma. “We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country,” the school says, “in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.”

“A nice conviction if you can afford it” might be the response of faculty working in less prestigious programs…

No kidding. At 15, I certainly couldn’t afford it. (And it should come as no surprise that Vonnegut once taught at Iowa.)

Nudged by Mark McGurl’s new book about the early years of creative writing workshops, The Program Era, Menand’s essay explores how these programs fed off the very questionableness of the justification for their existence. Existential anxiety made it possible for writers to hang out at cushy college campuses while still feeling in touch with real life enough to write about it. The tension of the question kept its answer—that is, rarely-profitable creative writing departments—alive and flourishing in American universities.

Not to say that there isn’t some teaching going on. Menand cheerfully notes that there are some writing teachers who actually do believe in teaching writing (even if they may not be at such exalted places as Iowa). In the end, though, he succumbs to the kind of equivocation so common in creative writing circles that would pass muster in not a single other academic discipline, not even art, where there are at least physical tools to be learned: the real education isn’t what you learn, it’s simply being there. Hanging out. He concludes by reminiscing about his dabbling in poetry workshops in college.

I just thought that this stuff mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other’s poems, seemed like a great place to be. I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.

And if students, however inexperienced and ignorant they may be, care about the same things, they do learn from each other.

I did some dabbling of my own in fiction workshops at Brown. They were the most exhausting, pointlessly competitive, and sleep-depriving experiences of my life. I made great friends there, but it was also one of the relatively few circumstances of my life in which I also made enemies (that I’m conscious of, at least). Halfway through my freshman year, I remember telling my cousin how profoundly terrible Introduction to Fiction Writing had made my life. She said it probably means something good was happening. So I took Intermediate the next semester. Then, never again.

After that, I decided, for my own part, not to study writing anymore. Instead, I would study what I wanted to write about. First, it was computer science, then religion. I started being able to sleep again. Not many people in those fields cared much about writing, so I could whittle away at my craft without a crowd of equally-insecure peers telling me what they would’ve done instead if they were me. It was great, and still is. I’ve learned from writers who think they actually have something to teach, and I’ve even started workshopping again with friends. I can learn to write in some decent measure of peace, without having to worry about whether or not learning to be a Writer is possible.

(I suppose this is something of an addendum to my recent plug of Gordon Haber’s writing workshop. Which I’m all for, by the way.)

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.