What Writing Programs Ought To Teach You When They Teach You About Writing

American Student Loan Debt Delinquencies has overtaken American Credit Card Debt for the first time on the spectrum of Debts. Students pay more to go to college and graduate school and get less from their buck than ever before. And now you can’t even pay it back! You used to get a job, now you get a ham sandwich, maybe. It’s not necessarily the fault of colleges and universities. They have to make big bucks to keep all that marble buffed and ivy trimmed. I’d much rather blame the heads of departments. The myth was once that if you got a Liberal Arts education in some worthless degree field you’d still be able to get a job in some worthwhile career field later. It would just be like a joke you told at staff Christmas parties: “Doug, tell us again how you majored in Beatnik Studies at the University of Lipstick on Allen Ginsberg’s Ass!”

Unless you’re currently in school studying Oil Sands or Fracking, you’re in the wrong growth industry. Journalism will be taken over by the bots in the next few years. If there’s an app that has an algorithm that can summarize long articles into a paragraph, it’s only a matter of time before they have one that can take a tweet and make it into a longread. You know, dipping into Wikipedia, grabbing a few facts here and there from all over the web. Kinda like what real journalists do. Except real journalists will be living in their mother’s basements. And that’s just for the most useful kind of writers! Imagine being a creative writer!

The Creative Writing Industry has failed the American Writer by a) not teaching them how to write bestsellers and b) not really preparing them for the life writers really have to live, the things they actually will have to do to get their work “out there.” And by “out there,” I mean read by more than just your mom and dad. (My parents really deeply understand my work in this totally smart way. They have such good edits.) The alleged camaraderie writers are supposed to feel for one another for going through this elaborate hazing pyramid scheme with all these other writers, aka getting an MFA, never seems to materialize. If you want to make people like each other and support each other’s work forever, don’t put them in a writing workshop with one another. In writers workshops everyone is trying to make themselves stand out and you are just getting in their way. Constructive criticism from other writers is really just passive aggression, let’s face it. “How about you not write like yourself and write more like me? Oh, just let me do it. You’ll just screw it up!” Seamus Heaney once read a poem of mine to himself as a guest in our workshop, rolled his big eyes, made a sound like he was working up a loogie and was going to spit on it, then just hurriedly shuffled to the next poem. Workshops are useless, destructive, soul-sucking. It ain’t exactly like the Keebler elves making delicious cookies as a team. We live in this Age of Haters, and the dumbest of us speak the loudest and cut the deepest.

Although I’m not sure what we’re speaking about this for. Books, of course, will be replaced by video games in the coming decade. To read a book you’ll probably have to spelunk into a wet, slimy hole on the outskirts of town and unearth a volume from underneath a layer of half-frozen gunk (and that will just be where they keep the Safran Foer’s books). There will be landfills with piles of Kindles stacked so high you will be able to view the vast nothing of the human experience in every direction until in its immensity you get so dizzy you’ll need another soma pill just to make you feel like living again. Still, in a more ideal world, what could Creative Writing programs teach us that they don’t? How can writers be better prepared to write the first drafts of movies going forward?

1. THE UNWORKSHOP

The greatest mistake the American writer ever made was asking everybody else what they thought of their writing. Look around your current writing workshop. Look right and left. Most of those people will stop writing. Because it’s too hard, they have no ideas, no one understands them, whatever. A few of those failed people will become editors. These are the only people in the room who should ever really matter to you. Writers need editors like tapeworms need moist intestines to live inside. Editors have real jobs and give writers gigs. What does knowing another writer ever get you? You have to read their fucking writing all the time, that’s all. The Unworkshop would function much the same as the Workshop. A student would rise, read a poem or short story and then sit. Classmates would hem and haw. “I love the bovine imagery but I just didn’t like the character of the butcher. Maybe it should be a mail carrier instead.” Modest praise would beget wild advice, as often is the case. No one ever tells you what they really think in workshops. They tell you what they think the professor wants them to say. Professors who are like totally taking that butcher and putting them in their novel-in-progress. But in the Unworkshop the writer would listen to each piece of advice and respond, “How much would you pay me to change that butcher into a mail carrier?” The advice-giver would respond with a number amount. The writer would make the changes based solely on the dollars. Writers are asked to do so much for free. The purpose of the Unworkshop would be to help build some of the muscles writers will most need to use in real life. The muscle that helps you ignore people with bad advice and the muscle that helps you to instinctively ask for money. If those muscles are working you are well on your way to writing for a living.

2. ACCOUNTING

I made an extra $7,000 or so on my writing last year. Above and beyond the work I did at the bookstore and the library. Pretty good. But now it’s almost April 15th and I will soon have to rob a bank to pay my taxes. I forget every year about my taxes until my father, a former IRS employee, reminds me. I spent that $7,000 mostly on sports jerseys on eBay. Those can not be claimed as a deduction on any line of the current US tax code. But robbing banks isn’t so hard, you just write a little note to the teller and pull a Yankee cap all the way down. No one would think it was me because when would I ever wear a Yankee cap? It’s just ridiculous: I like the Mets and Red Sox. No, I will not resort to crime. Sometimes I will tell my therapist, I am writing something new! And she will say, how much are you getting paid? And I will say, I was told she would pay me in those long Indian burrito things from that place on Amsterdam Avenue. And she will nod and go back to her crossword puzzle. My failure to live in the real world possibly stems from the fact that I rode a wave of silliness through my 20s and 30s and now am just an old guy living in a dreamworld of nonsense.

An accounting class for writers would first show writers what American money looks like. President Washington on the front, pyramid and eagle on the back.

An accounting class for writers would first show writers what American money looks like. President Washington on the front, pyramid and eagle on the back. This class will tell you what to tell the Huffington Post when they ask you to blog for them for free. Great exposure, though! This class will be essential because student loan payments never go away, like Nuclear Herpes. And without money, a writer withers on the vine like some kind of grape gasping for the sun. You can’t write if you can’t eat. And when I told my father, after paying $300 to Kinko’s to free my photocopied zine from Kinko’s jail, “you have to spend money to make money,” what I think I meant is “you have to have money.” Which segues into our next class.

3. GRANT WRITING

Even more important than your own writing, which is what it is, is your ability to write in such a way that people will give you money. There are weird organizations everywhere that just give money away to writers and artists, God Knows Why, perhaps it’s like the Feed the Children commercials. Give a writer a bunch of money and they will no doubt write something awful. The best writing comes from being young, carefree, feeling alive. And also suffering. Lots and lots of hideous, no-fun, totally terrible suffering. How does one get to mine that suffering? It’s as easy as picking up the phone.

Grant writing requires a weird technical sort of writing from writers. We have to talk about ourselves and our writing in like this heightened language of seemingly intelligent bullshit speak. “I wish to continue to touch upon the themes of crushing loneliness and excessive heartache as they pertain to the lives of people in their 40s living in Jersey City trying to get pizza delivered on a Saturday night after 7 p.m. I would accomplish this by getting a big fat check from you and then spending it on used Hartford Whalers jerseys on eBay.” In this Grant Writing class, you’d be instructed how to mail out applications for grants. How to bide the time spent waiting for responses. How to soothe your weary soul when you don’t get the grant. (How much of writing is really just not being crushed by it all? Being able to emerge from all the small defeats, which may leave you drinking in the bathtub, renewed and ready to venture out into the jaws of uncertainty again? There should maybe be a whole class on this.) And how to ask for grants again and again until you get them. Never stop asking for money. In other professions money is confused with respect. Respect isn’t really so important for the writer. What would you give to win the National Book Circle Critics Award? Hopefully not as much as you’d give to get your book on HBO. Someone wins a National Book Circle Critics Award every year. Big deal if it wasn’t you. But women were topless as snippets of your dialogue went whizzing by?!? Keep your eye on the prize. Your eye is usually on the wrong prize.

4. CHARM CLASSES

Writers occasionally have to appear in public. It’s awful for everyone when they do, but not everyone can hide out at home and type without someday having to emerge from their cage. And the less feral they are, the better off they will be. Difficult authors can be fun for a while, but not forever. They are fun when they’re dead. Because then one can wistfully remember what an asshole they acted like without the threat of them showing up suddenly or getting an email like, “I HEARD YOU WERE TALKING SHIT ABOUT ME!!” People talk shit about other people, because life is intrinsically boring now with no dragons to battle and only Bed Bath & Beyond to astound us. How much better off would most writers be if they knew how to behave? Most writers assume a persona of cautious, reasonable friendliness in public. Why would reasonable, friendly people become writers though? They wouldn’t. You’re a writer because there’s something desperately wrong with you, this constant checking of Twitter to see if people are enjoying your latest article. Something is wrong that can’t ever be fixed, it can’t be drank away or fucked out of you. The more you can cover this up, the better. The best scenes of any Truman Capote film are the ones in which he is at a party, spinning a wonderful yarn for a huge pack of other writers. That guy was fun at parties. Why can’t you be as fun as him at parties? Because people are generally shy and unsure how they are coming across to others. We need like constant reassurance that people are not seeing “the real us.” The sad, lonely, horny loser side.

A little charm goes a long way. “Please” and “thank you.” Not being a complete dick all the time. Flirting a little. Seeming to listen to people. Attempting to be a genuine person in whatever shifty, fake ways you can.

This class would teach you that people, especially other writers, are just as mixed-up and terrible as we imagine ourselves to be. And that the worst thing we can do is start believing our own bullshit. Someone once told Matt Lauer that he was a big TV star, now look at him. Just an angry old germaphobe making $25 million a year who will soon be banished to like “True Crime Dateline Tuesdays” on CNBC Prime. The Male Ego is not your friend (and I don’t have one but I would guess The Female Ego is no walk in the park either). And the Writers Ego will continually trip you up if you let it. A little charm goes a long way. “Please” and “thank you.” Not being a complete dick all the time. Flirting a little. Seeming to listen to people. Attempting to be a genuine person in whatever shifty, fake ways you can.

This might have to be a two-semester course. With a lab element.

5. SEX ED

When charm fails, sex begins. Sleeping your way to the top, the middle or the bottom is better than spending eternity writing corporate tweets. “Sorry to hear about the trouble @bunny76! DM us your address and ExxonMobil will fix this oil spill right up!” Everyone is so sure they are the greatest blowjob givers in the history of blowjobs. But there are really not a lot of ways to screw one of those up. This class won’t be so much about sex acts. At least 80% of your grade will be how to live with yourself after you act sexy. Writers are constantly going out for drinks with one another. One, because you apparently have to be a ridiculous alcoholic to write practically anything. I stopped drinking for almost ten years and all I could write were treatments for possible CBS sitcoms. Chris Rock and Winona Ryder are forced to get married by court order? Winona has a son with Tom Arnold? Those kind of things. Drinks between writers is because of the love of the drink and the possibility of some drunken, harrowing encounter, especially if the bar has those old-fashioned telephone booths or communal toilets. As humans we yearn for sex, but not Writer Sex necessarily. But we’re built to be lonely, we’re lonely machines. If writers were slightly better at sex we’d all be better off. Nothing tantric. That’s just too chafey. No one wants to be fucked for hours. Just wrap yourself around me and give me five good minutes and then a nap. Especially the nap part. That’s what this Workshop would teach you how to do.

6. CONCENTRATION CLASS

How can one possibly get any writing done when I have “Alf” on Demand?

I have six or seven tabs often, most are currently streaming porn. Another is just a gif of myself rolling my eyes that brings me a kind of strange comfort. It’s tough for me to get anything done with all this panting and moaning! Meanwhile, the hockey trade deadline is here! And who knows how many more wondrous things I can discover on this computer. When I go to the bathroom I bring my phone. And when I’m in the shower, I plug a usb cord into the outlet on my pubic bone. This class will teach you that nothing on the internet is really all that important. That article about “Girls” will probably be there tomorrow and the next day. The internet is forever! And Lena Dunham didn’t get to where she is today by reading dumb shit on the internet and making dumb jokes on Twitter. She makes dumb jokes on HBO. And now people care about her dumb jokes on Twitter. What the hell are you doing with your life, changing your Facebook photo to a red equal sign? C’mon. Stop wasting time. You could die tomorrow, but most likely you will die unfulfilled when you’re really old. And your grandkid will say, “‘Great, Grandma, Where Did You Stand On ‘Leaning In’?” And you will just have a stroke.

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Should you spend tens of thousands of dollars taking these classes? Of course not. But you definitely shouldn’t spend them in writing programs that give you two years to write and then 50 years to pay them back. Student Debt serves no useful purpose other than to embitter and blandify your work. I have a little red squiggly line under ‘blandify,’ which means it really isn’t a word. But it is still better than the word ‘meme.’ I would like to teach a seminar someday out in the woods on an old couch called “How to Mollify Your Disappointment with the Way Things Turned Out.” We’d smoke a little weed and listen to the birds and maybe get to second base. And then night would fall across the land and the stars would come out like change falling from a pocket. Once the computers figure out how to write well we’ll let them do it, and all the reading, too. Please summarize all the current articles about the trouble on “The Today Show,” computer! Beep beep beep, OK! Ready, Jim! If only that money would assure a future where people would someday remember us when we’re dead—but it won’t. I was also thinking about teaching a class called “Get Over Yourself,” but instead of me standing there, it should just be a daily moment in which the actress from “Bates Motel” hugs you and then looks you right in the eye, brushes away a strand of your hair and says, “Get over yourself.” That would be the greatest gift any writer could ever be presented. And would be worth a million payments of a million dollars apiece.


Related: How To Write The Great American Novel


Jim Behrle tweets at @behrle for your possible amusement.