The first time I came to New York with aspirations (ok pretensions) of being a writer I immediately went to Brooklyn. I had read (ok bought) tons of books and without fail the blurb at the back would say that _____________ resides in Brooklyn. Paula Fox...Brooklyn. Colson Whitehead...Brooklyn. Colin Channer...Brooklyn. Chris Claremont (OMG!!!) ...Brooklyn. That was enough to make a postcolonial writer go batshit. I flew into a delusion close to psychosis. I jumped off the G train and thought, this is my Paris 1927! I would swoop down on Clinton Hill and run into Jonathans Lethem, Franzen and Safran Foer, arguing about whether prose is really just the freest of free verse. I would stop for coffee and Paula Fox would run up and warn me to stop distracting readers with smut. Jhumpa Lahiri would explain that the reason her agent didn’t like my book was him not me. I would spend lunches drinking coffee and smoking Craven A’s, nights poisoning myself with absinthe and the rest of the time banging out the great Caribbean novel while my life fell apart. Spectacularly of course. Instead I couldn’t even get myself mugged, and realized that the last person to ask for directions in Brooklyn was a Brookliner.
Because New York is 8 million nations of one and in Brooklyn the nations are islands. Maybe there is a community of writers there, but as I’m not yet the type of writer that the New Yorker needs to talk about, I probably won’t see it. But there was a reason I was searching. Simply put, a writer needs community. There has to be something to offset the essential loneliness of being a writer. Something had to balance out the truth that we are at our most productive alone.
Maybe this is why so many writers spend a great amount of time knocking Creative Writing programs. “Can writing by taught?” goes the question, as if anybody in a creative writing program has ever been so stupid as to mistake it for composition class. For a genre so confident in its intellectual certitude, literature can be downright bonehead in its theories of how one becomes better at it. Julia Cameron, in the Right to sums it up as this: I have pen, I have paper, I write so I’m a writer. Like Ginsburg rhapsodizing about Bebop, the point was that if you were inspired enough anybody could do it.
Funnily enough nobody spins on their toes twice and gets called a ballerina. Now that I can strum a guitar a little bit, it’s been 6 months and yet Bob Dylan hasn’t gotten the memo that I’m his next band member. And Scorsese, what’s up with you not casting me in the Departed? Don’t you know that I was the star of my high school nativity play? You’d think of all the people who would know that inspired amateurishness is a myth it would be writers, but they are the ones shoveling this stuff. Make no mistake several writing programs are awful. There are also far too many of them and sooner or later they will have to ask why writing programs attendance is up while actual reading is down. But back to the point. I’ve heard and read too many writers, many of them graduates speak nothing but ill of programs, patting themselves on the back with the knowledge that writing can’t be taught and none of the real greats went to writing class anyway.
This is of course mythmaking of the highest order or rather, bullshit. I joined a creative writing program (Wilkes! Big up you'self!) after I published my first novel. And yet I was not the person in the class bitching about how unnecessary the classes were. This man thought everybody had a right to his opinion; boasting that his good buddies Mailer, Wolfe, Hemmingway, Baldwin and Jones never went to Creative writing class. Alas, pity the poor fool who takes a class with Kaylie Jones, who called Baldwin uncle Jimmy and James Jones, Papa. The fact is the boys did go to creative writing class. The class of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor from a bygone, awfully missed era. When Jones first submitted From Here to Eternity, Perkins told him to keep 100 pages, ditch the other four hundred and write the book over. He also gave Jones 100 bucks so that he wouldn’t starve to death doing so. Mailer, Thomas Wolfe both entered the Perkins classroom and all literature is the better for it. Hemmingway went to the class Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. Edith Wharton was pretty much schooled by Henry James. Even Flannery O’Connor went to an actual writing program, Iowa. Even Brooklyn was a school for writers once.
But that Brooklyn doesn’t exist anymore. Nor that Paris or London or Berlin though there was a Prague for a while. A writer searching for community is not going to find it at some smoky café in Park Slope or Rue St. Honoré. And maybe editors like Perkins still exist but I have my doubts after a junior editor at one of the three most powerful publishers in the world told me that his boss is not a “book person.” If you want the atmosphere of creativity and critique that can make a difference in a manuscript the only place you’re going to find that is a Creative Writing program. It took me 4 years to write my first book, largely because I did not know what I was doing. I could have used a trained ear, somebody who knew when storylines weren’t tied up, when words like ‘it’ were being overused, when characters were flat when they should be round and when using ignominy in a sentence impresses no one. I’m sure Zadie Smith can get Ian McEwan to read her next manuscript but the rest of us have to go to school. Sometimes if you’re lucky you get to build your own community. More than that, you come to realise that it does take more than one person to write a good book. If you have Jonathan Franzen on speed dial to do this for you then congratulations, but the rest of us have to go to school.
Creative Writing programs aren’t perfect. I’m still not sold on the idea of beginners giving pointers to beginners since nine out of ten don’t read nor have a clue about reading like a writer. There is also the tendency to confuse critique with simply telling what you would have done had YOU written the story. Workshop fiction can be devoid of real feeling (sentiment is the enemy!) and bad workshop fiction obeys rules so close that the end result is more of a thesis than a story. That said chances are that editor will not be able to tell you that your tone slipped on page 150, busy as he is, signing the next plagiarizer of chick lit. And neither Joyce Carol Oates nor Andrew Wiley can read your nine pager so you’ll have to take a number for a very long wait. But maybe Peter Carey or Colum McCann over at Hunter can help you turn your care bears story into Watership Down. Or maybe Francine Prose would pick up where others haven’t that your masterpiece in one less character away. And maybe you will realize that the best writers are students and Creative Writing programs serve to teach us that the essence of good writing is learning itself.