When I took my first creative writing class, at a community college, back in 1980, the class wasn’t crowded. We were a tiny group, less than a dozen, that returned each semester. But after a couple of years, it got bigger. One semester bam! it was packed.
Since I was kid, I’d written stories and poems, but just for myself. I knew I wasn’t a “real” writer, but I wanted to be. When I saw Jack Kerouac read from On The Road on the Steve Allen Show, I knew I wanted to grow up to be a writer. A writer like that, like him. Awesome.
I didn’t know who Kerouac was. In my home, no one knew much about anything. My mom, like anyone else, knew entertainment celebrities, of course, but she wouldn’t know a literary figure. Or even give a shit. Ever.
Hearing Kerouac read, I was mesmerized. I fell in love. Possibly with Kerouac (I was 9), certainly with the idea of writing like that. I felt he had some grand and deep understanding. I hoped when I grew up, I would too.
I forgot about Kerouac and On The Road. Not about my desire to write, just my seeing and hearing Kerouac read. Until decades later when I see him in a film clip. That jarred my memory. My god! I thought. I remember seeing this! Oh. my. god. It was Kerouac!
Kerouac’s name came up in my creative writing class. My teacher wasn’t impressed with him, but some students were. He was long gone from my memory. At least, on the surface. I wanted to know who this Kerouac was. I bought On The Road at a used book store. I read it and loved it. (I also love Big Sur. In a Kerouac documentary, Ferlinghetti says Big Sur is garbage. I don’t agree. It’s sad, though, because in Big Sur Kerouac is deteriorating physically and mentally. Booze got a grip on him; fame suffocated him.)
At the community college, a lot of folks didn’t think much of creative writing, as if creative writing were inconsequential. But I, and my creative writing classmates, loved it; we loved our class, our instructor, and our time together. For me, it meant everything.
The instructor didn’t expect much of anyone. He thought most people had more enthusiasm and ego than potential or talent. (He told me this.) But he was a good teacher. He didn’t discourage anyone. I learned a lot from him. But I still had a long way to go. (I’m still learning. I always will.)
I met Freddie the Freeloader at Cal. He’d won an Eisner. I asked if he’d give me advice. At first he refused, but he finally acquiesced. I showed him the piece of shit prose I wrote. I knew it wasn’t good, but that’s why I asked him for advice. His attitude was shitty, arrogant, his tone pejorative. “This is passive,” he said, sweeping the back of his hand down the page, glaring at me as if I’d committed some horrific faux pas. He may as well have said, “This is passive, you asshole.” I was embarrassed. I felt humiliated. Geezus, he didn’t have to make me feel like a worthless piece of shit. Notwithstanding that, it was an invaluable clue. Thanks, asshole. I’m truly fucking grateful.
At the community college anyone could take a writing class. But at Cal you had to submit samples of your writing. Not everyone made it in. I was talking to an instructor, and a student who didn’t make the list came in to ask if he’d reconsider. When the instructor refused, the student argued his case. The instructor wouldn’t budge. Finally, the guy drops to his knees and begs, hands clasped in supplication, whimpering. “Please, please, oh, please. I swear, I’ll show you I can write. I can do better. I swear.” The instructor was taken aback. So was I. I was embarrassed for the guy. And amused. I smile to recall it. 😀
“All right, all right. Get up.” the instructor finally said. After the guy left, the instructor says to me, “He’s a terrible writer. He’s not going to get any better. I don’t believe that for a minute. But he wasn’t going to let up until I let him in. You saw him.” He shook his head then he slapped the air and goes, “Ah,” thoroughly disgusted.
I wonder if the fool is still writing. I wonder if he got an MFA. I wonder if he’s published. I wonder if he teaches. I hardly remember what he looked like. But I clearly remember his arrogance and his terrible writing. He believed he was a good writer. It isn’t impossible he might’ve improved. With time. With practice. Lots of it. If he were open to criticism. I doubt it. But even a lousy writer can get an MFA.
A professor at Cal told me they didn’t offer an MFA (back then). From her tone and attitude, I could tell MFA’s weren’t thought of as highly as MA’s. Years after I graduated, I learned they now offer an MFA. I know an excellent writer who got his MFA there. (I think he’s brilliant.) I wonder if the English department still considers an MFA inferior to an MA. I’m not in academia, so I wouldn’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me. But MFA’s generate revenue. That’s the bottom line.
As a grad student at San Francisco State, I didn’t take creative writing. I was still writing poetry. But I’d had it with creative writing classes. I hated the last class I took at Cal. It was the ONLY creative writing class I ever hated. The issue was the guest instructor. I’m not going to expound on that. Suffice it to say, I never wanted another creative writing class. Ever.
I’ve read about the proliferation of MFA programs around the country, and an increase in people interested in creative writing. I have noticed that everywhere so many people are interested in writing. There are writing workshops at art centers, cultural centers, health centers, senior centers, youth centers, community centers. There are writers (or wannabe’s) who meet to share, encourage, practice, critique. I’ve heard of a Meet-Up group who play “writing games” for “creative exercise”. (Good lord.) Everyone and their mother wants to write. I’ve read articles arguing for and against MFA’s and creative writing classes. Here’s a quote from one particular article:
The love-hate relationship between creative writing MFA programs and writers has not changed much since Kurt Vonnegut was playfully piqued by the emerging phenomenon of writing programs in the 1960s. He liked the attention and money, but doubted that writing fiction could be taught.
Last year, N+1 Magazine persuasively schematized the path to publishing a novel as either ‘live in New York’ or ‘get an MFA’ and argued that, despite the cost in tuition and a powerful place in the publishing ecosystem, MFA programs have little effect on the quality of writing a student produces.
I think this increased interest in writing is narcissistic delusion more than anything else. A desire for fame, recognition, attention, applause. That’s my opinion. Literature is art. Talent is innate. Not everyone has it. Not everyone is a Raymond Carver, or a Robert Boswell. Shit. I half regret I didn’t major in creative writing. But I still write. Struggle with it. Alone. For myself first. Art is my pursuit. If I have talent, I’d like to be published. If not, well then, fuck me. Shit, I hope I’m not a wannabe.