Rules about writing are about keeping people out

You can spend a lot of time on the internet reading articles by people – some earnest, some I can only assume are malicious – telling you the rules you must obey to write or to be a writer. Some of it is framed like advice, some more like a warning: don’t do this, or else!* They’re both equally useful, which is to say, completely without use other than to waste your time and cause you unnecessary anxiety.

Today this one is doing the rounds: http://www.thestranger.com/books/features/2015/02/27/21792750/things-i-can-say-about-mfa-writing-programs-now-that-i-no-longer-teach-in-one

There is so much wrong with this I don’t even know where to start. Others have already more eloquently torn it to the bloody ribbons it deserves, but for mine, some of the best gems include:

  • Writers are born with talent.Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t…The [master of fine arts] student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare…
    • Ah, the classic combo – both cop out (so you can blame ‘lack of talent’ for not putting the hard work in and getting anything done, or for not succeeding) and insult (reducing the creative works of others to some magic inherent talent instead of recognising the effort that goes into good writing). Here’s the thing: writing is like pretty much anything – you can and do get better at it the more you practise and work at it (including by reading and analysing other people’s work).
  • If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one.** But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late.
    • You’re right, dude. When you only have around 60 years of life left, best to just give up now. I mean no-one’s ever learned a new skill after age 30, right? Everyone knows the best wisdom and clear thinking and performance in every area of life peaks in your teenage years. FFS. Hang on though, I thought talent was something you either had or not? Surely if you’re the Real Deal according to his magic Real Deal Detector (TM), you’ve got the skillz no matter what time you start. Whereas your ordinary schmuck can’t learn them no matter how pretentiously overzealous they are about literature as an eleven year old.
  • That’s why I advise anyone serious about writing books to spend at least a few years keeping it secret.
    • Just…wow. Keep it a secret? WTF are you supposed to tell your friends and family you’re doing when you’re writing? Again, this is part of this whole mystic talented genius mess he’s peddling and it’s just bunk. Tell people if you want to. Don’t tell them if you don’t want to. Try not to let your partner assume you have an online porn or gambling addiction because you won’t let them near your laptop or explain why you’re muttering at your monitor in the wee hours of the morning. What you share about your hobby/career is, like any other personal decision, entirely up to you, and has nothing to do with your abilities as a writer.

I could go on, but the whole article has this nasty bitter taste to it and it’s making me want a TimTam, and I’ve already eaten an entire packet of those Zumbo raspberry ones this week. The point is, this sort of stuff is designed to keep people away from creative writing programs and writing generally, by perpetuating stupid myths and trying to make up reasons why only the article’s author’s chosen few are ‘worthy’ of succeeding as writers. Guess what – no one, not this guy or anyone else, gets to decide who is ‘worthy’ to write. I don’t even understand why there’s this stupid bullshit culture of ‘worthiness’ around books anyway, like there is any objective measure of what is Good Art and what is Bad Art as opposed to a bunch of vastly different storytellers trying to communicate with vastly different people in vastly different ways.

Actually I do understand: it’s about certain groups trying to dictate who they can let in and keep out of their little clubs.  This guy’s all about keeping out of his precious field people who don’t take creative writing courses, or don’t write a particular type of literature, or who are different from him. Oh, you didn’t have the time, money, security and support to spend hours of free time studying the classics in your early teens? Sorry chump, you’re out. Guess how diverse a field that leaves? Yep, just about as diverse as he wants it to be.

Seriously, don’t listen to this shit. Don’t be kept away from something you want to do by the words of a stranger – or even by the words of people you know, for that matter – dictating some arbitrary steps or qualities you must have. There are no rules to writing. There may be tips, there may be help, there are certainly other people’s processes you can consider (and adopt, or refine, or ignore). But you don’t need anyone’s permission and you don’t need to meet anyone else’s criteria to be a writer. Write, read, write and read some more. Everything else is your business.


* Or else what, it’s not entirely clear. The writing police will come and find you? Tear down your handcrafted placards calling yourself a writer?

** Oh, how generous of you to think of one lone example. I’m glad you’ve checked up on the intensity of every successful writer in history as a teenager, because fuck me, I sure wouldn’t know how anyone could possibly assess that.

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