As an aspiring novelist, I like to read about other writers and how they found success. But in books and magazine that write this sort of swill, I often find an implied assumption that an aspiring writer will, as a matter of course, enter an Master of Fine Arts program to get his or her graduate degree in Creative Writing.
Since I have no intention of embarking on such a course — how long would a talking pig last in a creative writing class? — I thought I would defend my intention by finding out how my favorite writers got their start and how many of them had MFA’s.
I think I’ll attempt this in chronological order, beginning with the first writer who made an indelible impression on my life. I was five years old. The writer was Thornton W. Burgess, author of about a million animal stories for small children. I’m willing to assume that, in addition to creative writing, he studied wildlife management and child psychology too. I know he was pretty successful at what he did. In fact, while I was still in kindergarten, I taught myself to read so that I could devour more and more of his tales of the animals of the Smiling Pond and the Green Meadows. His characters acted like real animals except they talked to each other and had to solve little moral dilemmas that I could understand. When Hooty the Owl caught Danny Meadow Mouse and lifted him up over the snowy fields in the moonlight, I was, not exactly terrified, but unbearably excited to see what would happen next. One thing I knew for sure: Danny would escape. Thornton Burgess’ animal world was that kind of world. And that was just the way I liked it. Burgess wrote over seventy of those little books and I wanted to devour every one.
OK,let’s see what Thornton’s credentials are…hmm,what’s this? According to American Writers for Children, 1900-1960, after high school he went to business college for a year to try learn accounting. Didn’t like it, and quit. Got a job in a shoe store. That’s it. That’s his entire advanced education! What gives here?
When he was twenty-one, he snagged a job as janitor/office boy at a publishing company. The publishing company put out magazines for farmers. Burgess didn’t know anything about farming, but he knew the editor, so he tried submitting a few little pieces. One thing led to another. He became a part-time, then a full-time reporter. He learned by doing! Found out what worked by bashing away at it day after day.
Well, that was a long time ago. Let’s pick somebody more current. How about, Ken Follett, the thriller writer? His stuff doesn’t thrill me with delight, but neither do I despise it. I’ve read my share of Ken Follett thrillers and enjoyed every one. And, since he’s one of the most successful writers out there, so let’s see where he got his MFA in Creative Writing.
Well, according to British Mystery and Thriller Writers Since 1940: First Series, Follett went to University College in London, where he took his degree in… philosophy. Philosophy? Well, he probably wanted to get his moral bearings in an ambiguous universe so his characters could agonize more about their despicable deeds, after he finished his advanced writing degree, right?
Actually, he went home to Wales and snagged a job for the South Wales Echo, writing their rock music column for three years. Then he became a crime reporter and started writing thrillers on the side. If he ever took a writing class, there is no record of it. Just kept bashing away to see what worked.
I know, you’re probably saying Pig, you’re only picking writers that you know never went to graduate school. What about those high-toned guys who write literary fiction? The kind that critics like and wins awards? They must have MFAs!
Listen, don’t get me started on critics. I wish they would all go shoot themselves.
Listen to what The Oxford Companion To Children’s Literature says about Thornton W. Burgess stuff, the man who opened the wide world of books to me forever: “an undistinguished mishmash in imitation of The Wind In the Willows…Beatrix Potter…and Uncle Remus, but (sniff) very popular in his time.” And please don’t mention that undistinguished name in my critical presence again. Hmmpf.
Frankly, I find it hard to open a novel that promises long pages of careful introspection and Scandanavian angst. A novel about a husband and wife not discussing their marital problems for 300 pages in their middle class kitchen in Connecticut only gets interesting to me when pirates suddenly leap through the kitchen window, kidnap the wife, and the husband has to rescue her before it’s too late! But that mostly doesn’t happen.
However, there is one literary writer I actually enjoy. He was a Southerner by the name of Walker Percy. I’ve read two of his novels and they both were about alienated Southerners walking around the South not thinking about things. But, for some funny reason, I really like the guy’s work and want to read more. So let’s look him up.
Ah, Walker Percy. Went to college back in the thirties where he studied…chemistry. He eventually became a pathologist, and while autopsying tubercular corpses, contracted TB himself. Through his long sanatorium convalescence he started reading — French and Russian literature, philosophy, psychology, anything to keep his mind going. Made him start wondering about things. How come if science is so great, men and women tend to be so unhappy and confused? And lead such shallow lives?
So he recovers, but doesn’t want to be a pathologist anymore. He decides to try writing books about this dilemma that has become real to him. Quits his job, moves back to Louisiana, lives off an inheritance from a relative, and starts bashing away to see what works. His third novel, The Moviegoer, wins the National Book Award. So he never set out to write literary fiction. He set out to use fiction to solve the problem that gnawed at him.
I am not totally convinced that going to graduate school is the best way to learn anything in the creative line. Has jazz noticeably improved since musicians started getting degrees in it? Actually, no. It’s gotten more boring. Today, jazz lovers are still listening to the guys like John Colrane and Miles Davis who learned from bashing away in the clubs ever night.
What about movies? What film school did Francois Trauffaut or Frederico Fellini go to? I think it was called the school of life. They learned their trade by making movies all day. Did that school close down? It turned some pretty good guys.
So, in conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I think I’ll just sit here and bash away until I finally figure out what works.