By Elise Blackwell
The only aspect of my job as an MFA director and creative writing professor that I dislike—aside from those “and then I woke up” stories freshmen sometimes write—is gatekeeping. Sometimes it feels like barring a door I’d rather open. The most painful no’s are those to the talented, committed, and qualified for whom we have too few jobs in our department or too few slots in our graduate program. Some of the other requests are getting easier to turn down.
About five years ago I wrote a satire of the writing life, or at least of a few versions of it. One of the book’s jokes was that every character in the book was writing a novel. Even those who didn’t start as writers, and even those who disdained the profession, wound up with a book credit. Only the publication success rate seemed farfetched to me.
There had also been a recent spate of celebrity book publications: not simply the usual ghostwritten memoirs but novels written by actors, singers, and politicians. And while working on the book I encountered a survey stating that one in four American adults claimed to be writing a book. This year the Association of Writers and Writing Programs had to close registration to its annual conference. It seems that 10,000 writers are too many even for Chicago. According to literary agent Nathan Bransford, there are more than 15,000 people out there querying agents every year.
A lot of those books being pitched are never written. (I suspect that the woman who told me, at a cocktail party, that she had three novels in her head and only had to write them down never did write them down.) Of those aspiring writers who complete a book, some publish them, but most don’t. Some give up and others self-publish. All of them participate in some way in the writing culture and chatter. Everywhere I go I seem to meet one of them, and a lot of them find me. Though hard statistics are hard to come by, it is clear that a whole lot of people want to be writers—or think they want to be writers or at least want to have written a book.
I met a woman at a respected writers’ conference. She was there as a “distinguished alumni reader” and had published a novel that was fairly successful both financially and critically. The excerpt that she read struck me as a bit calculated—maybe more craft than art—but pretty good. When I complimented her later and asked what she was working on next, she said, “Well now that I’ve done the novel thing, I’m thinking about doing the catering thing.”
I thought about professional chefs who started as children, opening their parents’ refrigerators and imagining what they could do with the contents, spending their teen years experimenting on their family and friends as culinary guinea pigs, saving up for that year in France to pick up an extra certification that might get them a paying job, putting in hot hours in someone else’s kitchen to get some practical expertise, borrowing money to open their own restaurant, knowing that their chances for success are minimal and that success means about a 1-percent profit margin.
Am I saying that people who didn’t want to be chefs or writers as children—or who did but weren’t willing to take the risk—shouldn’t try their hands at these careers later? No. There are plenty of examples of people who most certainly should have. What I’m wondering is why so many people want to be writers.
Most of my colleagues don’t field lots of requests from community members wanting to sit in on graduate courses without having any undergraduate background. (The one exception is the Medievalist who receives a few emails from Renaissance Fair types who don’t realize that the Chaucer and Gender seminar isn’t about jousting and damsels in distress.) Few career jumps or midlife crises point toward astrophysics or neurology or mathematics.
The other arts attract would-be practitioners, particularly the visual arts. People seem, though, to be better at judging the quality of their singing voice or drawing accuracy than their prose—or more afraid of less familiar art forms. But almost all of us are writers of some sort: people who have grown up writing letters and papers and probably at least some elementary-school poems and stories. John Wilwol, a freelance writer specializing in books and publishing, notes that writing is “the most accessible artistic medium. I might not have paint, clay, studio, but if I’ve got pen and an idea, I can write.”
Many people really do want to write. Maybe they always did but lacked the money or encouragement or guts to pursue it as a career. (Still, I tend to agree with the late Matthew Bruccoli that writers write because “the poor bastards just can’t help themselves,” and so believe that folks who really want to write do write. Even if they don’t pursue credentials or publishing credits, they have a drawer full of pages.) Some people sit down at the computer because they want to write as self-expression or therapy or as a form of community with friends in a writers group.
Others put pen to paper because their life has given them a story they really want or need to tell. Novelist Joseph Wallace notes that there’s a sense of accomplishment to writing a book: “This is mine. I did this.” He also acknowledges that many people realize they have interesting stories to tell. My grandfather sat down to write his memoirs late in life, encouraged by my grandmother who didn’t want him in the kitchen after he retired. Every Christmas there were new chapters under the tree wrapped in red ribbon—a copy for each of his children and grandchildren. We were glad to have them, as were several local historical societies and museums, but he never had any intention of publishing them. He simply wanted us to know about his life and the times he lived in.
Plenty of aspiring writers, however, don’t really want to write. Some of them are in it for the money, which is great if they go in knowing the odds. Or maybe they want to “be writers,” or have a certain lifestyle, or to talk about writing. (When they think writer, they think not of the lonely hours alone struggling with sentences but of rooms with lots of alcohol, attractive and easily impressed fellow party-goers, maybe a cool hat.) And some people simply want to have a book on their resume. Writer and editor Mark Athitakis cites status: “We’re a class-conscious society; I think writing a book is perceived as a way to climb a rung or two (or ten).” Anne Elizabeth Moore adds to this: “I think, with the perceived rise of self-publishing as ‘viable,’ writing a book is also about keeping up with the Joneses.”
Is there any harm in all this? Aside from overwhelming the desks and e-mail in-boxes of agents and editors, probably not much aside from some atrocious Facebook behavior by some who seek glory from their hobby.
But I do hope that those who are hobbyists—or who view writing as therapy or just want a book under their belt or write for any reason other than to make literature—understand when I have to tell them no, they cannot audit our graduate literary fiction workshop. That workshop is populated by people who have already put in years of study and practice, who may have gone into debt or alienated sensible family members or at the least have bypassed or forsaken profitable careers. They have done this and moved from wherever they were to my city for the sole purpose of apprenticeship in a particular art form. They don’t want to be writers; they are writers.
Years after my grandfather set his memoirs to paper and had them copied at Kinko’s, I returned to them, weaving some of the material into my second novel. I think he would have been pleased, but he wouldn’t have wanted to be in my graduate workshop. And, though he’s probably the finest man I’ve ever known, I wouldn’t have wanted him there unless he already understood the nuances of point of view and could spot metafiction when he saw it.
Return to Top