There seem to be as many different kinds of writers as there are different kinds of people. Indeed, writing itself seems to be one of the more fundamental behaviors humans engage in. It’s an activity one does alone and the thing is infinitely internal.
My favorite poets are the ones who live deep within obscure forests like gnomes in Hansel and Gretel and they hardly ever emerge because if they did they would be put away from decent society and under lock and key. Hansel and Geretel thought their nemesis was a witch. The poor dear was a poet from Mendocino whose house was made from Gingerbread.
I am constantly amazed at those writers who seem to insist that those of us who do this thing — writing — have so much in common that we are essentially a “tribe.” A tribe that might find common answers to stupid questions. Particularly the ones that have to do with process. Faulkner knew where he was going even if he had no idea how he might arrive. I find this notion that there are answers at all as to how people write to be as frightening as the North Koreans with the Bomb.
I wince whenever I see a writer advertise him or her self or selves as having: graduated with a Master’s Degree in Creative and Episodic Emptiness from the Iowa Workshop School of Supreme Thinking Where Bubba was Mentored by Noah Webster before winning the Annual Pot Cheese Award for Truly Obscure Fiction and was Short-listed (what IS short-listed) for a new Men in Undershorts Catalogue published by Pontifical Publications University Press.
That there are so many writers who think this stuff — the awards and the degrees and the past publications — is meaningful leaves me stunned, and I am reminded one more time that I have nothing in common with other writers which is ironic because I have a lot in common with other writers who have nothing in common with other writers. You are as good as the last thing you wrote. Period.
It leaves me incredulous, but there are writers who believe that we are a tribe and that there is a pecking order. Usually these are deluded folks who insist their place in the pecking order is somewhere near the top of the scale which is not unlike the Harvard Pecking Order of Lawyers who move on to Manhattan to work in the Pecking Order of Corporate Cash where all the various pecking orders are a cultural problem.
In order for us to be a tribe we have to share some of the same values. I share nothing with this group or with any group or tribe which is one of the main reasons why I am a writer in the first place.
I desire to be outside the context of the committee and embraced by no one.
So I have at least some credibility when as a writer I am allowed to comment on the extent to which groups of writers are a bad idea and only really exist somewhere in the demented imagination. The fact that they all share the same degrees and workshops is appalling.
I want to run. From this group. The very notion that there is a consensus — among writers — about anything is more enervating than being chased through the dark in the woods by Jason in his hockey mask with his chainsaw. These people need to be banished to an island where they can all agree to agree on whatever they want to agree on and no one else will be hurt by the subsequent insanity.
Run for your lives. They have escaped the island.
I live next to the Carl Sandburg house and I enjoy getting away from the computer screen every so often to walk around the Sandburg farm with my dog. The Sandburg house itself is from another time. The last time I was there I noticed that one of the last things Sandburg was reading was Lolita which I found amusing. I also found the fact that Carl’s personal easychair sits next to a crystal set of cocktail glasses (not dainty little ones but big ones) and in this respect we share at least something. When you go into his workroom on the top floor where he liked to work late into the night, you can’t help but notice that his desk is not a desk at all but an old orange crate with an old Underwood on top of it. We have another thing in common. My orange crate is one I stole from an orange grove in Largo, Florida now occupied by condominiums. One gets the feeling (it is only a feeling) that Sandburg was somewhat irascible so we may share something more thematic than orange crates.
Another thing we seem to share is isolation. I am only beginning just now to learn not how to read the Internet but how not to read the Internet. I am always stung when I read this thing with the people who speak at me versus to me. They seem to have a lot to say about the things I write — their aubtext is that they would like my attention — and since I find so much of it to be inarticulate analysis I don’t read the Internet anymore. None of these people have the courage to confront me directly so the only way to ignore this group is to ignore them.
Writers who want to be a tribe seem to usually come from somewhere else. Another academic realm of pecking orders. I suppose they all have prizes, too.
One of the functions of any tribe is to keep the continuity of the agreed upon rituals and standards intact and operative within the context of the culture the tribe in its fantasies derives its identity from.
One finds these people congregated in centers of learning. This is where they usually find something quite strange called a salary.
The teach or they’re professional students or both and all of them suffer from the illusion that there are cultural attributes to the pecking orders where writing is an activity where Other People are allowed to have an influence on not only what is written but how it’s written.
I refuse to believe I am alone in this — although I value that loneliness as irony is not just my right it’s also a responsibility — and there must be Other Writers out there who value Being Left Alone as much as I do.
I don’t even shop much less put my real name on what I write.
As a tribal outsider, I find the antics of the tribe; prizes, degrees, awards, workshops, teaching models, genres, facsimiles of publishing ventures, to be unintelligible. What are these people doing. I know this: it isn’t writing. Writing is not done by the group. It’s done by individuals looking back at the group and often it’s done from the perspective of speaking to another group entirely.
It is an abstraction and not something that can be refined with more rules upon rules. I seriously doubt that there is anything of value to be learned about writing that comes from a group or a tribe whether they’re congregated at a book festival or a university and I suspect the whole herd mentality of the thing simply reinforces their not-too-solid identity they are really writers because, after all, they’re hanging out with writers who aren’t writing either.
I prefer ghosts to groups.
People ask me which writers I most strongly identify myself with. This is like asking you what city you are from. The idea is not germane to anything. I am still attempting to get inside Hemingway’s sentences let alone his head and I identify with ghosts not writers.
Who do you think walks around the Sandburg farm with me and my dog.
Carl thinks Lolita could only have been written by a European. Americans are much too busy worrying about what Other People think.
“Yes, but you won your share of prizes, didn’t you.”
His eyes to the sky. “Most of them came with a lot of money.”
Timothy Barrus is the author known as Nasdijj.