Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Advice for the Young Writer (an Old Essay)

I wrote this for an essay writing class from my senior year in college. I've been saving it for a rainy day (which is actually the case today). I think it provides a good peek into my formative writing years and, also, I think it's funny.

So you’ve decided that you want to write fiction. Delightful! Writing fiction can be a very rewarding experience. Believe me, I should know; I’ve written a fair amount of it in my day (of course, a fair amount of that it is atrocious crap, but I normally don’t talk about such things). You have decided to take up the pen, a worthy and noble cause, and I would like to welcome you to the club – the club for those gifted and talented geniuses known as writers.

Now, I realize that you haven’t done much serious writing thus far, and so, before you get cracking, I would like to offer you some guidelines on how to go about becoming a fiction writer. These guidelines are based on my experiences as a young fiction writer in university writing classes, and I hope that you will benefit from what I’ve learned.

First, you must learn that there are three types of fiction awaiting the gentle caresses of your pen. Those types are: poetry, prose, and drama.

Poetry, or as I like to call it, “The Ever-So-Glorious Art of Verse” is a very special form for the beginning writer. On the grand continuum of bullshit to non-bullshit, poetry sits closer to the former. Thus, if you are a good bullshitter, you will also be a good poet. It is one of the easiest forms of expression known to the artistic-minded person.

Now, this ease was not always the case. Back in the olden times, when dinosaurs like Shakespeare and Pope ruled the earth, poetry required rhyme, meter, and, above all else, skill. Poetry used to involve that sort of hogwash and hokum. Thankfully, we know now that, in the modern era, skill is not necessarily required. In fact, writing poetry is so simple, I’ll write an impromptu poem for you right now:

Fast Food-Religion
My bosom, like fire grows
Backwards into
Steaming heaps of crabs.
Oh mommy!
Love knows no bounds
No bound knowing knows love
There is only my
And some rotting fruit.

See? Look how easy that is! Even now, I dream of all the possible interpretations for this little gem. “Oh mommy!” Ha! Freud must be pissing his pants right now, dead or no. What symbolism; what diction; what style; what allusions! Now all I have to do is sit back and wait for the literary critic to come tell you what the hell I mean.

Of course, truly good poets actually do employ skill in the crafting of their verse (these are the poets whose works sit close to non-bullshit). These people tend to take pride in the way their poems are crafted. They will also likely be, for the most part, ignored in their time. How incredibly lucky they are.

Onward we move to prose. Prose is considered by many to be the absolute perfect expression of the creative writer’s art. It sits proudly atop the greatest pedestal of written art, looks down upon the lowly masses of people, and scoffs haughtily at the futility of life, love, laughter, and any number of other L-words. Of course you’re interested in writing prose. You’re only human; how can you resist?

Your first impulse will be to try and write something creative, imaginative, and fresh. Ignore that impulse. If you are thinking about writing something in the vein of mystery, science fiction, fantasy, or comedy, then don’t bother. Writing fiction is clearly not for you: at least, not if you plan on writing artful fiction. Not if you want people to sit around in coffee shops discussing how brilliant you are. Not if you are writing in a classroom setting. No no no, my friend.

Now, let’s say that you are a young writing student in a prose-fiction workshop. Let’s say you are, for the sake of argument, a young man of nineteen, with brown hair, blue eyes, and glasses, and your name is Nat Topping. You’ve written a story about a young man who, waking up one morning, finds that an unknown and mysterious roommate has, without an invitation, moved into the living room over night. This stranger, who will not vacate the premises, sacrifices goats nightly as a matter of principle. Would you submit this story to your writing class and hope for a constructive response from your peers?

Of course you wouldn’t, you silly bastard.

You would be mocked, scorned, and derided by your peers and instructor. You would be dismissed as an “okey dokey” writer for conceiving something that people could laugh at and enjoy. You would be pelted with fruit, buried beneath piles of rotting papayas and moldy kiwi. And, once you had been properly tarred and feathered, they would run you out of the classroom on a rail, shouting and taunting you all the way out of the building and into the streets where they would leave you, sticky and covered in goose feathers, to think about what you’ve done.

You wouldn’t submit that story because you know that nobody writes stories that contain improbable events. Nobody writes stories that are intended to entertain people. Nobody writes stories about goat sacrifices.

At least, not anymore they don’t. Not in the modern age. Doing so labels you as a charlatan, a hack, a producer of trash and tomfoolery unfit for the title of “writer.” And believe you me, your instructor and peers will tell you so. You can count on that. No, my friend, you don’t want to write as Nat did.

Instead of writing like Nat, your instructor will tell you about a magical movement called Existentialism.

In case you don’t know (I understand, oh novice writer; you’re young yet) Existentialism is a literary movement that was invented on one gloomy morning in France. On this particular morning, a young man awoke from a particularly restless sleep, and, his head being clouded by the dull pain and thick mental fog of a hangover, he decided that his life was less impressive than he would have liked. However, instead of just dealing with it, as countless generations of people had done before him, he decided it would be far better to complain incessantly about his disillusionment in the form of fiction writing. At that very moment, Existentialism was born. It was then wrapped in swaddling clothing, placed in a manger, loved, cherished, and ultimately proclaimed to be the savior of all art. And to think, this wonderful movement is thanks to the disgruntled scrawling of a pissed off European.

Every two months, the literary community gets together and sacrifices a goat in this man’s honor.

Once you’ve discovered Existentialism, your next task as a young writer is finding your voice. Everyone has a way of writing particular to his or her own style. If your writing instructors are worth their proverbial salt, they will help you find your voice, isolate it, and alter it such that it is more conducive to narration. In short, they will take your personal voice and make it sound more like Poe’s, or Salinger’s. In fact, it may simply be best to abandon your voice immediately and go straight to using Poe’s. After that, you can proceed, as everyone else does, to writing the quintessential American novel.

By limiting the writer’s conception of genre, theme, and voice, your instructor will draw a volume of work from his or her students in which, for whatever reason, each story is remarkably similar to the last. It’s a spectacular sight to behold. Imagine page after page of stories about the horrors of life! Characters running around, unloved by their parents or significant others, always subject to some form of discrimination or abuse, and constantly thinking about suicide or running away. If only we could find a way of regulating detail, imagery, metaphor, and setting as well. What a wonderful world that would be.

As for drama, the third genre in the pantheon of creative writing, I must advise you to turn away from that field (solely for selfish reasons, naturally). It is my field of choice, and competition is tough enough as it is – so tough. I was here first.

With these quick notes, you already have a head start for your education in a fiction-writing class. Pretty soon, you too will be writing pieces of work that are marginally creative and entirely morose.

Of course, there will be the occasional writer among the new flock who will throw the advice of countless writing instructors to the winds, who will simply say, “They don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m just going to write on my own, and if they don’t like it, they can go fuck themselves.” And, believe me, there are alternative means of writing. Some of them involve not being indoctrinated by a failed-writer-turned-begrudging-teacher. Some of them involve writing simply for the love of writing. Some, using wild creativity and active imagination.

Please ignore those routes.

I hope that these precious few words have been helpful to you on your quest towards a writing career. If you are interested in exploring topics such as what your future might hold as a fiction writer, then I suggest reading my follow-up essays entitled They May Be Rich, but at Least I’m Smarter, and Frustration: A Guide to Coping with Bitterness and Marginal Success.

Good luck, and good writing, my friend.


GW said...

You hit on some pretty good points in this essay. Was this essay turned in for a grade? I wonder what it was like to be Nat Topping in whatever year this was written.

Unknown said...

Yes, as a matter of fact it was. This was my final piece for a Senior year essay writing class.