Tuesday, 3 January 2012

A Writer at University

I've recently talked to one of my co-writers, and realized that writing is really largely overcoming obstacles. They can take a number of shapes, really, most are probably mental in my case. (They can be physical - I knew a writer once whose arthritis was so bad she could only type for 30 minutes per day, talk about serious limitations!)

Thankfully, my ego is pretty resilient overall. It's probably a layer thing. The outer layer is me going "Yes, I'm FUCKING AWESOME". The next layer down holds my insecurities. It's a big layer, and the inner critic lives there, too. That's the place where reviews hurt, especially when the reviewer says out loud what I was feeling down in my guts but didn't know how to fix. This is the place where I keep half an eye on my Amazon rankings and Goodreads reviews.

But at the core of it, deep, deep, down, there's a place that nothing can touch, and that's what powers the Muse. I'd reasonably confident that I'll always write, because I've always made up stories. It's integral to me like the spine or the skull bone. Nobody can remove it. I don't think it could even be damaged by outside forces. If we use the metaphor of a nuclear reactor (I've recently used that in my writing, so it's a close one), the radiation is always there. Whether I turn it into anything sellable is a different matter - and the plutonium core absolutely does not care. It's happily emitting radiation, whether anybody does anything with it or not, it'll just go on doing that because that's its nature. The best answer to "why do you write?" for me is "because I cannot not." It's my birth defect, or my calling, it is really what it is.

Now, a situation I recall from university becomes truly bizarre. I started university studying German Literature (made kinda sense at the time) in addition to American Studies and my major in History. Still getting my head around how this whole writing and novel thing works, so I figured some help from academia might be nice.

So we're doing the "get to know you" bit at the start of a German Lit course. 99% of the people there said they were studying German literature because they always liked to read (or were good in German at school). I, the dissident, admitted to being a writer and trying to learn some tricks from the pros.

Response from the lecturer running the course: "OH MY GOD! You should immediately drop out, because if you stay, you will realize that every story has already been written, and so much better by the Grand Masters of Literature than you could EVER HOPE TO BEEEEE!"

Let's not even begin to talk about how a man (who's made his life and career in academia by talking about the work of writers to the uninitiated) tells a creator to a) either not get involved in literary criticism as it would surely break the writer's heart; or b) give up writing and despair over his own inadequacy at the very start of his career in the face of the masters.

In other words, why play chess; you'll never beat Deep Blue. Why run; you'll never beat Usain Bolt. Why cook, if that Michelin star is WAY out of your league.

And surely, if all stories in all possible permutations have already been told, surely we've run out of stories way before Shakespeare. Sorry, Faulkner, what you did was a complete waste of your time ever since Ovid.

Also, I hadn't been aware that gay military sci-fi romance was so big in the Middle Ages.

Okay, I mocked the asshole lecturer enough now. I just dread to think how many young writers might have believed him, if only for five minutes, thanks to his Position of Authority. But then, writers do it because they must, so the real writers will have been okay, anyway. I'm just sorry for the moments of doubt this guy has left in his cynical wake.

And every story has a moral. I did exactly what the dude wanted: I dropped out of German Literature (now, having dropped out of the German language too, this has an ironic double edge) and turned towards American Studies, where one of my favourite lecturers ran this course: Creative Writing (my first CW course).


  1. A Troll With a Title is still a troll. ;)
    And I thought Mike and Sergei's story made a very awesome rendition of Romeo and Juliet, come to think of it. Haha!

  2. I think it's a sub-species: Uni-Troll: eats unaware writers in pursuit of a degree. :)

    All star-crossed lovers owe a piece to R&J (And old Bill nicked the story from an Italian dude).

  3. LOL, I also studied German Lit and till this day I refuse to read German books. I once described the process of analyzing a book down to the smallest bits as vivisection. You tear a living organism apart till there's nothing left but little dead pieces.

  4. Enny - yes, absolutely. It's great to have those critical faculties (they are useful if you're an editor or need to work out, after the writing, what the heck you just did there), but if the critical faculties destroy the love of the story or any kind of words put down, then something's surely wrong.

    Or, to use a different metaphor. Of course a sculptor should know about human anatomy. But smashing up every statue to examine every single molecule isn't really *that* useful. Maybe only analyse books you really, really hate on that level?