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Blasting Blowhards of the Book

Creative writing is often considered an elitist pursuit, mostly because the people who practice creative writing try to keep it that way. Hiding behind the excuse that “no one cares about creative writing except the people who practice it”, the creative writing clique keeps to itself.

The truth is, a lot of people do care about writing. Whenever someone I meet finds out that I’m a writer, that person almost always has some kind of writing-related anecdote to share – “Oh, I love to write stories!” or “I used to write poems but never have the time anymore.”

We forget that writing creatively can be easy and fun! It could be a populist activity! If you have a paper and pen, you have the power.

I, too, used to keep my interest in creative writing to myself. I wrote as a hobby and rarely discussed it with other people, assuming that no one would care. But when I teach students who want to learn creative writing and who have spent most of their lives believing, like others, that writing is an elitist pursuit, I constantly have to think of new ways to change their minds.

The people who sometimes make writing seem inaccessible are often colleagues and people I admire otherwise. These people dress (black berets), act (smoke cigarettes), and talk (big words to sound smart) differently, to make a statement. They exaggerate their vices. I know a lot of people who are happy to perpetuate the stereotype. They work the “I’m quirky” angle and run with it – much like Katy Perry, but smarter.

In one of my favorite publicized examples, Gawker published a Columbia University writing professor’s haughty e-mail to her former writing students. Though the e-mail could very well have been misinterpreted, Janette Turner Hospital seems to be bragging to her former MFA students about all the great opportunities they are missing by not living in Manhattan. She writes:

And then there are all the peripheral pleasures of living on Manhattan: we’ve seen the Matisse exhibition at MOMA, have tickets for the opening of Don Pasquale at the Met Opera, have tickets to see Al Pacino on stage as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, etc etc. Plus I’m just 15 minutes walking distance from Columbia and from all the sidewalk bistros on Broadway, and 3 minutes from Central Park where we join the joggers every morning. This is Cloud Nine living on the Upper West Side (which is known to my agent and my Norton editor, who live in Greenwich Village, as “Upstate Manhattan.” )

In truth, being a good writer has nothing to do with living in Manhattan, attending plays, viewing art, and living a life of privilege and culture.

Some of the best writers look like normal people. They are humble and rarely talk about writing, as it is something they practice when they’re working alone. When you’re seriously working and truly talented, you don’t feel the need to constantly talk about how you’re a writer. Because the status doesn’t matter. Being able to do the work does.

In many fields, the representatives are generally the blowhards, the ones who seek attention. In politics, for example, some highly publicized, badly behaved politicians – Christine O’Donnell, Jim McGreevey, Sarah Palin, etc. – don’t necessarily represent all politicians.

Similarly, I cringe when I hear a colleague or fellow writer say something “artsy” or “intellectual” to a person who obviously doesn’t care – this is not a way to convince non-writers that writing is, in fact, something practiced by down-to-earth people.

If you want non-writers to care about writing, to become better, more enthusiastic readers, writers must realize that not everyone was born charmed by the written word. Not everyone is writing to be the next Great American Novelist, but all people should have a mode of expression. Creative writing is the easiest way to do express oneself, since most of us are already literate (not everyone can paint, draw, play the piano, etc.).

But why would people curious about writing even want to try to write a short story if they felt they needed to wear a beret to do so?

(Photo sylvar)


  1. I used to think a friend who said “I think everyone has one good book in them” was a precious idiot, then I started listening to StoryCorps on public radio. We forget that as writers, we sit around the same campfire as thousands of years of ancestors did before writing was even invented. The oral tradition. It required no berets, no MacBooks, no Moleskine pads and fancy pens.

    I wish I could write a story as good as some as my great-Uncle Philip, may he rest in peace, could weave at the dinner table.

  2. It’s even worse for the writing world when people who perpetuate the stereotype are not even actually writers. Rather they fancy themselves as writer, or want the world to believe they are.

    There was this lame-ass guy that a few of my friend had the displeasure of knowing/hanging out with for a few years before he mercifully moved to another state. He would go to the 24-hour IHOP, wear (you guessed it) a black beret, and sit there with a cigarette, and a pad of paper, and to the waitress to “just keep the coffee flowing”. He’d scribble sometimes, but mainly, he wasn’t writing shit. He was sitting there at 2 AM under the assumption, we gathered, that somebody would see the smoke, beret, coffee, and notepad, and be so impressed by the fact that he was “writing” that they would swoon with curiosity and approach him.

    They didn’t. Nobody did. Ever.

    Ironically, “shit” was also the word to describe what few things he actually ended up writing.

    When asked what he read, he would always say, “I want to focus my energies on writing. I am not much of a reader of other people’s work.”

    As though you can be ANY kind of writer without reading.

    And yet, to the uninitiated, this clown was, in fact, the “writer” in the area. nobody liked him, and some assumed it was because he was a “writer”, when really it was because he was an ass.

  3. I wear a beret, sometimes when writing, sometimes when not writing. I just really like berets.

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