Another day, another week, another privileged old white man bemoaning the state of Western literature. The problem? Creative writing courses, naturally. When I set out to write this piece, it was in response to comments made last year by Horace Engdahl, one of the judges for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Since then, there have been other outrage-generating articles – most notably Ryan Boudinot’s ‘Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One’ – and I suspect that there always will be. For the purpose of this piece, however, I will focus on Engdahl’s comments, as they broadly sum up an attitude toward writing that somehow continues to gain traction, despite being utterly ridiculous.
The thrust of his argument, in case you need a refresher, is that what’s missing from the current generation of writers is struggle. This, he concludes, is largely the fault of Master of Fine Arts courses (MFAs). It’s the ‘professionalisation’ of the work – via grants and financial support – that Engdahl singles out for blame, apparently because it leads to writers being cut off from society. As if to be awarded funding, one must also agree to be led into a concrete bubble, never again to experience life or to witness its manifest problems.
‘Previously,’ he writes, in the lead up to the announcement of the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, ‘writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this.’
Ah, the grand old days – nothing like today’s uppity collection of professional writers, with their suits and financial security. If you just burst out laughing, there’s a good chance that you’re a working writer. This comment from Engdahl is the myth of the starving artist rearing its ugly head, and while it isn’t only in the world of literature that you come across privileged white men delivering lines like this, increasingly it is only here that they are taken seriously. Quite aside from blandly assuming that everyone coming into these environments is as beige and middle/upper-class as he is, this notion makes absolutely no sense. Take it from someone who has actually gone hungry on a regular basis: it fucking sucks.
If you think great art will come from starving, you’ve never starved before. Your stomach hasn’t shrunk to half its size; you haven’t dealt with the nausea, the cramping, the dizziness, the lethargy. I know these feelings intimately, both from growing up with my aunty and her four kids in a housing-commission home in Western Sydney (where we barely scraped by), and from observing Ramadan for many years. I can assure you, being poor hasn’t helped me become a writer. It has only ever limited my capacity to grow. You can’t write when you’re hungry, that’s for sure. Not well, anyway, but it goes beyond that. When you’re poor, you can’t afford to buy books, and if you’re not reading as much as you possibly can you are absolutely going to fall behind.
Just as popular as the ‘starving artist’ myth is the ‘write every day’ creed you’ll see posted just about everywhere. A lot of writers think of it as a necessity, but actually, I’ve found reading to be far and away more important to the developing writer. Luckily, we live in a country with easy access to public libraries. Without them, I can honestly say I wouldn’t be here. Books are what helped raise me beyond the streets I’ve watched crush the lives of so many people I grew up with; books, and a devotion to reading, are what helped me get to university in the first place. There are plenty of people in plenty of places, both here and abroad, who don’t have that access or aren’t aware of how to get it. That’s poor and rural people accounted for, but what of the working class, whom Engdahl is really championing?
There, too, his claim is ridiculous.
I say this as someone who has worked hateful nine-to-five jobs, who has come home drained and depressed without so much as the memory of a spark with which to create art. I say this as someone who worked full-time while completing a full-time Masters of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney, a decision I utterly regret. I didn’t take anywhere near the time I should have with my work, and my work suffered for it – I would leap at the chance to be in an MFA of the kind Engdahl and his ilk deride, and many of the old writers he romanticises would have said the same thing. Those MFAs, in America at least, tend to support their successful applicants with full tuition and a small annual stipend. It’s not a lot, and they can only take a few people a year because of it, but is it worth it? Absolutely.
One need only look at the staggering success of alumni from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – an exhaustive list of famous writers, poets, playwrights – to realise that claims of creative writing courses having a detrimental impact on writing or writers is pure gibberish. In fact, if prizes are your metric for success (and I’m not saying they should be), and your target is Western literature specifically, then surely you should look to the last American writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison, who graduated from Cornell with a Master of Arts degree in 1955.
In fact, for every famous writer who succeeded without such a degree, another could be found who did graduate on which to base an equally arbitrary counter-argument that these courses are absolutely necessary. I’m not here to do that, however, as it’s patently clear that with enough determination great writers will succeed, no matter what. The MFA and other writing courses are no more and no less than valuable tools and resources with which to make an otherwise enormously difficult path somewhat easier for a brief period of time. Time is the operative word, the thing we all crave more than anything bar basic sustenance. Give us that, and we can do anything. If you’re poor, if you’re working yourself into a nub, if the grind bores you into a catatonic state, you have less of that than anybody else.
This is the real reason for the surge in popularity of writing courses, for the ‘professionalisation’ of writing via government grants. The unpalatable truth is that a large number of working writers couldn’t survive without them. Universities have become an integral part of the architecture of literature, both in providing a space for young writers to develop – via interaction with great writing and great writers, as well as the opportunity to mix with their creative peers in a stimulating, supportive environment – and in providing authors with a stable income outside of writing. Name a notable living poet, and the odds are they’re teaching somewhere or are the poetry editors of a literary journal; the money has to come from somewhere, and there’s just not enough in publishing or freelancing anymore.
You need only search for ‘writing’ in any job database to come across the staggering number of entries looking for unpaid writers to feed the content mills that are the new norm. Those rare few that do pay don’t pay well. Poems and short stories fetch you less and less, even in prestigious literary journals. In Australia, you’re unlikely to get more than $50 for the former, and somewhere between $100 and $200 for the latter, depending on the word count. In this system, of course struggling writers and artists are going to swarm toward the lifelines offered by universities and governments; they are providing the time we need to create the stories and art which sustain everyone else in their down time.
While the situation is perhaps worse now for writers than it has ever been, this struggle is by no means new. You need only read A Room of One’s Own to see Virginia Woolf recognised as much, laying out all the things a writer, in this case a woman, needs to succeed at the practice: ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ Nothing could be truer. So why the contempt for creative writing courses, for so-called professionalism? Isn’t this precisely what we’re all fighting for – the recognition that what we do as work is as valid as any other occupation? It’s not a hobby. It’s work, and we should be paid accordingly.
One of the reasons for these attacks, I believe, is the implication that if it’s work, it isn’t art. And if it’s like every other profession, then anybody can do it. Which is to say, people like Engdahl see these ideas as an attack on the specialness of the writer, the singular tortured genius who rises out of working class obscurity to literary superstardom. These writers are exalted but what the privileged authors of today fail to acknowledge is that those writers bucked the trend. They are the exceptions, not the rule.
Imagine what these writers could have produced if they weren’t so worn down, or depressed for so long, or hadn’t died early because of the alcoholism they resorted to in order to get through every miserable day they weren’t doing what they knew they were supposed to be doing? That some were able to draw on their dreary experiences and use them in their art does not mean that dreary experiences are necessary for art to come to fruition. Some of the most innocuous experiences of mine have led to my best work – a bus trip, a trick of light, an idle thought; some of my worst, most difficult memories remain untranslatable. They’re a language I haven’t learned to speak yet. The truth, ultimately, is that there is no logic to the production of art and there are very few constants – outside of paralysing doubt, lack of money, and an all-consuming love of storytelling.
In turn, this leads to another truth: writing remains a deeply impractical profession. It can function both as a tiring daily job and as art. Here’s how a typical writing day might unfold for me: I’ll take my laptop, notebooks and pens to the local library. I’ll sit, listen to one of two playlists, and wait. The headlines of the day come and go, I’ll read and respond to the emails that need responding to, put off the rest. A blank document, along with a few half-finished siblings, will be open in the background – waiting as I’m waiting. My life is on constant loop in my mind – I sift through my experiences of the past few days, weeks, years – there’s no limit, no end. I follow my thoughts wherever they go. Often, it’s to some festering wound or just-healed scar. Emotion lingers, pools around these flaws, these thoughts, and inevitably overwhelms me; what I’m waiting for on any writing day is a moment of clarity, a moment of stillness where what I’ve stirred up settles back down and I can see the shape of the poem uncoloured by sentiment.
Only then do I write.
In an ideal world, where I didn’t have to worry about money, I would do this every day. Put myself in a state of readiness where writing could eventuate, where art might eventually flower – if I’m patient enough, if I’m dedicated enough. In fact, last year I quit my job to put this theory into practice. If I can manage to squeeze out halfway decent work while worn down by a full-time job, I thought, what can I do if I’m able to write full time? So I flew to New York and spent three months there, doing that and only that, every single day. First in the New York Public Library, in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building on 42nd Street, and later, when I couldn’t afford the train trips, in the local library near my rented room in the Lower East Side.
Spent is the accurate word here, because the trip took the majority of my savings and I came home broke. I mention it only to prove that I can and have put my money where my mouth is, that this isn’t some lofty statement of intent, but a life I am ready to live. Have lived already, in part, and seen the fruits of my labour – I came up with my best work in those three months. Unfortunately this is not a practical way to live, not in any sense of the word, and those three months were very much an aberration for me.
Since getting back I’ve struggled to find consistent work and I now find myself staring at the dregs of my funds, facing homelessness if I don’t find paying work within the month. Luckily, I have that work lined up and I should be able to scrape by if I scrimp hard enough. If I’m not woken up again at 4am with searing pain in my jaw thanks to an infected wisdom tooth requiring emergency surgery. If I’m careful with what I eat and when I eat it. If I don’t get my phone repaired. Even if I didn’t have that work lined up, however, I wouldn’t change a single thing about the time I spent overseas.
From the work I completed then, I’ve had several poems translated and published in Arabic by a noted Palestinian poet I admire, and another poem shortlisted for the prestigious Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets. I was also selected by the Emerging Writers’ Festival to travel to Bali to attend its counterpart literary festival there, as part of a cultural exchange program. Small successes, to be sure, but important ones – a validation of the time and effort I spent crafting my work in those three months. I used it to put together my first poetry manuscript, which I hope to publish. But for argument’s sake, let’s say I don’t. Say this is all I manage. All in all, it took me three years to achieve. Three years of saving, of working and studying and working, constantly tired, barely able to write, to finally be able to quit my steady salaried job and launch myself abroad to see what I could do on my own, in a room, with the money I’d made.
Now I have nothing but these poems. If I’d managed to get into one of those much-maligned MFAs, I could have saved myself a great deal of time and money. If I had got a grant at some point, the same could be said, but the problem with grants is that ‘living’ isn’t counted as an acceptable justification for the awarding of funds, nor is ‘rent’, no matter your potential or your publication credits. You have to be paying for a course, or equipment, or setting up a studio or something equally practical to receive a grant. Governments, you see, have an equally hard time as these critics I mention in understanding we require money purely to pay for time. Time, time, time. Everything else is a luxury, but time is the one necessity we cannot compromise on.
Everything we do will result in a net loss, if looked at in practical terms. Even this article, which has taken three days to write, will only earn me $200. Some 3000 words, days of work, $200. And the sad thing is that for the Australian market, this is actually better than most other publications. Nor am I taking a shot at Kill Your Darlings, which, like so many other literary journals, runs on love, on volunteer editors who struggle as much as writers do to find a publication with the funding to support them. I’m merely illustrating the lengths we must go to in order to survive, to scrape by, as we do this mad thing called writing, this job, this practicable art. I have managed it somehow, with depression and insomnia dogging my heels every day, but I honestly don’t know how much longer I can do it.
I know my upcoming three-month contract of paying nine-to-five work will be a period in which I get very little writing done. In which I will be drained dry, in which though I’m eating well and able to pay for books and movies again, I will be a pain to be around. I will be miserable because I’m not engaged in the art which grants me purpose, the art for which I bother waking up in the morning, which transfigures the ugly and the ordinary into something approaching magic. This is the price I must pay to make time wherein, for a brief period, I can breathe freely again and unfurl into the immersive heart of language, the only place I’ve ever felt truly at home.
And pay it I will, though I lose a little more of myself in the process, though it gets progressively harder every time. Now perhaps you’ll understand why, though I may not be in an MFA or be the recipient of a grant, I’ll defend to my last breath those necessary lifelines for other writers, the lucky few. I can only hope they recognise how precious the time is they have, how fleeting, and make the best possible use of it.
Image credit: Allen Skyy