Writing is a funny thing, and the teaching of writing is particularly difficult. What I’d like to say, at the start, is that writing — particularly the writing of poetry, but all writing, really — is an art. We rarely say it so. In “A Retrospect,” Ezra Pound discusses the difference between practicing and viewing something as an art and as a pastime. Writing often seems to fall in the gray area between the two; when I taught this in class yesterday, I asked my students how many of them had taken music lessons (all but one student raised a hand) and then I asked how many of them thought they should give a concert (no hands were raised). I shared these sentiments myself: though I was once one of only four students chosen out of all of Mr. Greer’s music students at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School to play “Climb Every Mountain” in a special recorder recital that was certainly a delight to all of the parents and teachers in the audience. However fly my recorder skills may be, I definitely don’t expect to be on stage at the Carnegie Center any time soon, thrilling audiences worldwide with my exceptional recorder rendition of “People” from Funny Girl. The same was true for them, and for me, when it came to art; though I did take a drawing class in college, and I do enjoy drawing, I don’t think I deserve a special show at the MOMA. But writing — writing is different. Writing is much different. This can be seen both in the way that I had to rephrase my question and in the way that the students responded. I felt it was unfair for me to ask them the same thing about themselves with regard to writing, and instead asked how many of them knew people who wrote in the same way that they took art or music lessons. All hands raised. I then asked them if those people thought that their poetry should be published. All hands remained raised.
Writing is different. Writing is a tricky, blurry thing. I made a confession to my students which I will also confess on this blog: when someone asks me what I do, I don’t tell them that I’m a writer (and I would never, ever tell them that I’m a poet, though I might say that I write poetry — but that’s an entirely different story and perhaps one best explicated and explained in an entry of its own). I tell them that I’m a teacher. I decided this was necessary one day two years ago when, doped up on the muscle relaxers and antibiotics necessary for me to have dental work, I lay with happy gas filling my nose and my mouth stretched far too wide open as my dentist filled two cavities. He asked me what I did. I must have managed a series of noises that sounded enough like “I’m a writer,” because, for the remainder of my dental procedure, the dentist excitedly told me the plot of his recently-published crime novel about the gritty New Orleans streets.
It isn’t that I don’t think that these writers are talented. I do — in fact, to be perfectly honest, the plot of my dentist’s novel sounded more exciting and gripping than a lot of what I read and wrote in graduate school. And it isn’t that I don’t think that these writers have a story to tell, or the gift to do it well. I do, and I do — in fact, to be perfectly honest again, many of my freshman Composition students have put together narratives more blindingly truthful (in all senses of the word “truth,” which, of course, has many meanings, though that is also an entirely different story and perhaps one best explicated and explained in an entry of its own) and searingly beautiful than a lot of what I read and wrote in graduate school. And it isn’t that such conversations bother me; at least, that is, they don’t bother me in the sense that one would imagine. It’s that such conversations make me feel a little uncomfortable. Uneasy. Queasy. It’s that such conversations put me face to face with something I do not at all like to face: the fact that writing and publishing is, or, at least, can be, very, very elitist.
The thing is that these writers want help, and they want the kind of help that I absolutely cannot give them. They want me to get them published, or, at least, help them to do so. A few months ago, I sat in the waiting room at my internist’s office, grading essays. When a fellow patient asked what I taught, I realized that my usual avoidance wouldn’t work. I’d been caught blue-book handed. Upon learning that I was a writer, she began to describe her novel (which, again, sounded like a very good novel) — but then began to launch into a discussion of the publishing process. A lot of what she said was wrong. Very wrong. A lot of what she said made it sound as though getting a three-book deal from a major publisher was the easiest thing in the world. I sat, and my fever rose, and I felt ready to boil over and blow off steam which had much more to do with my own frustration with publishing than with her misguided beliefs about the industry, until I realized that she didn’t know. There was no way for her to know. And I couldn’t tell her. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to say it: she didn’t have a chance.
The thing is that few of us do. The thing is that every one of us has talent. The thing is that every one of us has a story, a gorgeous story, flaming inside of us, and that a lot of us do write that story, and do so beautifully and searingly and truthfully. The thing is that publishing has very little to do with that. It has a lot to do with going to the right schools and meeting the right people. It has a lot to do with saying the right things and moving in the right circles. It has a lot to do with having the right job in the right place at the right time. The same goes with training, with education, with workshops and craft talks and lectures and readings and assignments that could help my dentist or the fellow patient in the waiting room hone their craft to such a point that even if they don’t do or have or say the right things/people/places listed above, a published could never ignore the gorgeous gripping searing beauty of their novel.
Pound doesn’t say this. Nor does Pound mention how much of this has to do with money. When I was a senior in high school, I knew that I wanted to study creative writing, and I made a choice which I don’t — and can’t — regret, but which has made life very difficult for my family and for myself: I went to Sarah Lawrence, where I had the insane amount of luck to study with unbelievable writers and thinkers and people, but which was prohibitively expensive. Most schools where one can study with unbelievable writers and thinkers and people are. Pound does say that the amateur can become the expert (here, he does make the distinction between “expert” and “professional,” but that is, again, an entirely different story which, again, warrants explanation and explication in an entry of its own). Perhaps it is only in the intervening years that this has become so difficult, largely because education about writing, in all forms, has become tied to money.
I can, of course, talk and blog and rant and preach about this situation all I want, but what’s really important to me is action. How do we turn the tables? How do we open the doors? How do we let both dentist and fellow waiting room waiter in? Arts outreach, certainly. And the Internet offers a whole world of possibility. It seems as though it’s all in the effort. It seems as though we, as writers, can reach out to a few at a time, can hold out a hand to one or two, can make small gestures which, when made together, can make a world of difference to the world.