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.
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.”
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.