December 6, 2012

Why I’m Sick of Writers Or: (Lovingly) Calling “Bullshit” on Writer Culture

As a senior set to graduate in May of 2013, in the past few months, the most common question I receive is: are you applying to grad school? It’s a fair question to ask, considering a large percentage of my English/creative writing friends are applying, or planning to apply to a variety of schools all over the country. Though I’ve tossed around the prospect of an MFA since freshman year, my answer to this questions is always some variety of, “Not now, but maybe in a few years.” This decision took a long time, a lot of research and general soul-searching to make. However, this fall semester I came to the realization that cemented my decision to not pursue my MFA right now: I need to take some time off from writers. 

You gonna take time off of me?

Initially, when I typed that sentence, I wanted to say “undergraduate writers,” because I thought: “Hey, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe this is just one aspect of the ‘lost, confused, identity-crisis, annoying-as-hell twenty-something’ bubble that every undergraduate student at any university in any field of study experiences. Maybe I just need a break from undergraduate writers, not writers in general.” But I have a gut feeling, and this gut feeling, mingled with reports from friends who have attended or are achieving an MFA right now, reassures me that this is not an isolated undergraduate phenomenon. So, I can say, with confidence, that I need to take some time off from writers because, quite frankly, I’m sick of writers.

I’m sick of verbal acrobatics, both in conversation and on paper. I’m sick of sentences crammed with strategically obscure vocabulary in order to make the writer look smarter. I’m sick of hearing a haphazardly-written first draft of a short story called “postmodern.” I’m sick of holier-than-thou writers who know they are better than the writer they are workshopping and offer visibly half-hearted feedback as a result. I’m sick of the realization that all of “the best writers” in my classes wear the same kinds of shoes. I’m sick of the worship of famous writers (“all hail DFW – or David Foster Wallace for you Philistines!”) as tragic demigods who my fellow young writers claim they could never become and yet imitate constantly. I’m sick of every writer I know desiring fame, when in actuality, none of us, or at least very, very few of us, will achieve the kind of fame we dream of when we turn in our final drafts.

I’m calling bullshit, on all of it. I can no longer tolerate writers and their bullshit that has taken all the joy, truth, and beauty away from an art form I so dearly love. And since the bullshit is probably here to stay, considering it has only gotten worse the older I’ve grew, my best solution is to run for higher ground for the next five years or so, until I’ve recuperated enough to withstand another dose of bullshit. 

Yes.

Before I went to college, I knew I wanted to write, considering it was (and is) the only real talent I possess. But I heard that the worst thing you can do if you want to be a writer is study English or creative writing. Study something else, anything else, that interests you, I was told – biology, math, history, anything – and the knowledge you gain will inform and enrich your writing. For a long time, I planned to major in journalism, but I chickened out at last minute and chose English anyway. I don’t by any means consider it a mistake that I majored in English and creative writing. I’ve had too many inspiring teachers and non-bullshit writer peers to believe that. But I do think the advice I heard holds some weight. It’s not simply that studying something other than writing can enrich and inform your work – it’s that studying writing for so long and with so much depth inevitably distracts you from what writing should actually be about. Thus, the bullshit occurs.

Though I may be disenchanted with my fellow writers, the culprit is not only the bullshit, but (more importantly) the fact that the bullshit takes all of us farther and farther away from good storytelling. A non-writer friend who understands my frustration sent me this article the other night, and I loved it so much I read portions of it out loud to her and swooned as though the article was a love letter. It’s a letter/assignment from Kurt Vonnegut to his students at Iowa, asking that they read Masters of the Short Story, choose three stories they loved the most and three they loved the least, then write a report on each. In this report, they must pretend to be an editor at a journal where each story is up for publication, and they must write about which stories deserve publication. Vonnegut specifically instructs his students how to write these reports, and these instructions particularly struck a chord:

Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique.”

Not pretentious.

Sometimes, when I finish reading a story that leaves my mind empty or buzzing from the pretension, I’m tempted to simply write at the bottom of their draft: “Just tell me a story.” This is, at the heart, the purpose of writing. Don’t try to be an academic constantly drawing conclusions or parallels, or a wordsmith drunk on her own cleverness, or a jaded, seen-it-all barbarian desperately trying to write the one story he knows he hasn’t read yet. Don’t try to be anything else that will soil your identity, first and foremost, as a human being. Don’t even bother trying to be a writer. Just write. Just tell me a damn story.

About Maura Lammers

Maura Lammers worked as the contest assistant for The Missouri Review for two years, and graduated from the University of Missouri in 2013 with degrees in English and women's and gender studies. She currently lives in Walla Walla, Washington, where she serves as an AmeriCorps volunteer for an alternative high school. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Quaker, Nib Magazine, and EPIC.

14 Responses to Why I’m Sick of Writers Or: (Lovingly) Calling “Bullshit” on Writer Culture

  1. Jodi Barnes says:

    Thank you for this wonderfully honest treatment of a problem many of us have with the literary world and, sometimes, our own work. My husband, who is not a writer, is the most well-read person I know. After he reads my work he tends to have a similar response to most of it: “In this section, you sound like you’re trying too hard. It’s not your voice.” Thanks again for writing this. Best of luck! -Jodi

  2. FR Lewis says:

    Hell yes. I am recalling a scene from the wonderful movie Wonder Boys, in which the enemy writer Q comes up to the podium to speak to the school and says in a deep and solemn tone “I AM A WRITER.” It’s a short brilliant portrayal of the writer as pompous clown. When strangers ask me “what I do” I always hesitate to tell them I write. So I say I’m a carpenter (which I am). people can relate to carpenters. people like carpenters. Writers however…

  3. Sarah Jones says:

    Yeeesssssss.

  4. Laura Moran says:

    I just added your essay to the first week of my Intro to Lit syllabus!

  5. caleb says:

    Good thoughts, Maura. Pretty much agree with you on all of what you said. When I was a college freshman I very quickly opted out of the English major and went in many different directions instead. I didn’t write a creative thing for 3 years, then finally graduated with an interdisciplinary degree. Then I went on to study history in graduate school. And what happened in graduate school? I published short stories in lit journals, using the history reading as inspiration and primer. It was probably a great idea to not do English for the last 7 years and really figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be.

    Your charges against literature and its world are legit. There is writing out there that doesn’t wallow in nonsense or self-indulgence/absorption, writing that is based around the story and not the writer – it’s just really, really hard to find!

    More importantly, your strong feelings about literature mean that you care deeply about it, so. So go and create some of what is lacking in the literary landscape! Fill in the gaps! It’s all we can do to keep at bay the dark, dark feelings.

  6. I think your comments are truth. I’ll go even further and say that I think MFA programs do more harm than good to literature. As a long-time poet, editor, and publisher, I’ve read many submissions from MFA graduates, and too many of those seem to be written from a formula, too much alike, and not at all creative. To make matters worse, many of these writers are quite pretentious and egotistical. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard, but I don’t think one can be a good writer if his/her ego is larger than the rest of the world.

    Of course, not all writers are like that, thankfully. However, an editor like myself runs across these mountains of self-importance every day. I recently got to the point of saying “enough,” and turned to my own selfish writing pursuits.

  7. Good luck on your journey!

    I, too, took six years off between my undergrad BA in English with a focus on creative writing before I entered my MFA program. While I didn’t have the insight into the BS as an undergraduate that you so wonderfully acknowledge, I know I would have crumbled under the weight of it had I gone directly into a program at 21. Still, I think there is a place for MFA and PhD programs in creative writing, as long as the student goes in “eyes wide open,” as you are already poised to do if / when you decide on that route.

  8. “The same shoes” lol

  9. Mary Troy says:

    This post makes me laugh. So one writer thinks some things she reads are precious or silly? Gee. Some things are. Don’t we all know it? Reading and studying literature, especially that that we do not really like, is still a positive. If that reading helps the reader discriminate, decide for this or against that, it has been worth it. Why read just in your comfort zone? And posers are great fun really. They give us more to write about, for around them we have a first row seat to witness their fear and insecurity.

  10. Kirk Parker says:

    Hey, you left out the best part of Vonnegut’s term-paper instructions, the last sentence:

    “Use words I know.”

  11. Matt Perry says:

    I once read a couple of pages written by David Foster Wallace and found them so bloated, precious and overwritten I felt like screaming. Who was he trying to impress? The world is turning fast and our job is to capture the whirl, not to slow it down and drain it of all its energy.

    I’m a writer with virtually no writer friends. I like it that way. They bore me silly.

    Instead, I hang out with runners who are smart, funny, engaged, and altogether alive. Why? Because the one act they love combines everything important in life: physical exercise, camaraderie, emotional catharsis, even spiritual connection (particularly when trail running). They are hands down my favorite people, and most writers would benefit from taking up another activity that gets them out of the house and into the world where the stories are bold, vivid and vibrant.

  12. Corinne L says:

    Oh for the love of Steve – of course you’re tired of writers, honey, you’ve been surrounded by a bunch of pretentious little brats who think Google search results are equivalent to experiencing the real world. Go wander the globe, write what you want, when you want, do something that isn’t writing. Then decide. As author Ron Carlson said to me a couple years ago about MFA programs, “It’s not where you go, it’s how you go.”

  13. Just wanted to say thank you for being so honest. It’s somewhat refreshing. Just keep writing.

  14. Shelley says:

    “Just tell me a story” is the best line in this essay.

    Writers need to have real jobs in the real world. We’re expected to know something of what life is like, and we can’t know that if we only know ourselves.