We Are Not A Tribe

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.”

He shrugs.

His eyes to the sky. “Most of them came with a lot of money.”

* * * * *

Timothy Barrus is the author known as Nasdijj.

9 Responses

  1. Other Side of the CoinLucid
    Other Side of the Coin

    Lucid and refreshing essay. Timothy, or Nasdijj, you are a pleasure to read.

    I want to link this to my blog later tonight, when I get home from work. I respect your views very much. My only disagreement – and I’m not sure if it’s really a disagreement or just another way of looking at things – is something like this:

    I know I’m just a speck in the universe. In the grand scheme of things, you are correct – awards mean nothing and the literary hierarchies are basically fabricated “hooks” to publicize books. It’s like a way to organize. When I was a kid, while some kids were learning the batting averages of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, I was categorizing horror movies into Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, etc. But it can be kind of fun as long as you don’t take it too seriously. Somewhere in the world, someone who had no idea about baseball or classic monsters was diving for pearls.

    Maybe a guy lives in the woods all alone forever and grows vegetables to eat. He eats no one else’s veggies and no one ever even knows he exists. Or, in another scenario, he trades some squash to a hermit in the glen for some beans. Maybe at some point, the two of them start hanging out together, then a few more people wander along, and next thing you know, it’s a small community. One day they have a contest to see who can grow the biggest pumpkin.

    The winner becomes bitter.

    “This reward doesn’t mean shit!” he decries.

    “Jeez,” say his peers. “Your welcome.”

    “Maybe we should stop giving awards,” someone else suggests.

    “Ah, fuck it. I had fun. Let’s do it again next year.”

    Sometimes the patch committee is rigged.

    “Zeke won’t make it another year. We should give him the award before he croaks.”

    “Hell, we should give him an award for that big mutherfucker growing on the side of his neck!”

    Within a few years, the Pumpkin Growers Union is formed. The giving of awards becomes a gala event. You have to pay to get in.

    An alternative Pumpkin group springs up near some caves, but it’s not much better.

    Finally, sickened by the loss of innocence and simplicty of farming, a few people retreat into seclusion. They don’t give a damn about any pumpkin thumping scam!

    As the years go by, a bored farmer is looking at clouds.

    “That one looks like a sunflower,” he tells someone.

    “Sunflowers are big!”

    “Yeah. Yeah, they are. That reminds me, look at the size of that pumpkin in Sam’s garden.”

    “Oh, yeah, I saw that!”

    “Midwife Sarah has one bigger than that!”

    “No kidding. Cool…”

    And somehow, it starts up again.

    I think what I’m trying to say is, it’s human nature to complile, compare, organize, and make hierarchies. It’s not necessarily wrong. If we stopped doing it today it would subtly return. Everything is relative. Lists and cliques are constantly shifting. Sure, there are many excellent writers who will never win an award, but that doesn’t take away the fact that many of the award winners are indeed great writers, too.

    Oh, and I especially like the part about the witch being a poet from Mendocino whose house was made from Gingerbread.

  2. Captain BeefheartCaptain
    Captain Beefheart

    Captain Beefheart stated this very succinctly in an interview I read years ago. I think it was in Rolling Stone magazine. He was asked about where he fit musically. He said, and I’m quoting from memory, “Paul McCartney asked me to be on his label. I told him ‘I don’t think there is a label for this bottle'”.

  3. Wild, isn’t itthat, as a
    Wild, isn’t it

    that, as a teacher of English and of writing to the middle/high school crowd I find what you’ve said so clear and liberating? There’s benefit from the group–or this site would not have produced what and how it has–but yes, fundamentally writing is gnomish and solitary. I wish my kids could be trolls under bridges writing the fiery honest words in them, but the group (school) snuffs that out. What you’ve said is an expression of a central element to writing. It is art, so you can’t ever define it, but this bit is essential. We write because we must and why we must is infinite. Now a group of trolls would be something . . .

  4. sublimationsIt is refreshing

    It is refreshing to hear a differing opinion. I like people who think outside the box because I don’t believe there really is a box – like the emperor’s new clothes. It’s existence depends entirely on our lemming-like assent. I think the Miss Snarks of the world would disagree, and they run the world; or they run what they think is the world, and we give our lemming-like assent.

    And to piggyback on Bill’s idea – if art is as important as I think it is, than awards should function to define what art is. In defining what is literature today – we look to Orhan Pamuk and other award winners. What would interest me further is a discussion of their works in relation to that standard.

    Hopefully this would differ from sports awards or pumpkin awards – though in a certain sense, the best pie at a county fair has some legitimacy as defining a standard of excellence. So too does an athletic achievement set a standard as to who we are.

    But as Nasdijj point and Bill point out, how does this serious discussion of who or what we are as a race, vis a vis writing or pie making, lose it’s legitimacy? The national news is not all over these issues with expert panels and opinion polls – it’s a footnote – by the way, so and so won a Nobel. The Heisman Trophy is far more newsworthy. That disturbs me.

    I want when aliens come to our planet, for them to recognize humans as something good, or sublime even. Not mistake the arachnids or stallions as the only things here of interest. I want when I look at humans to see something sublime, not cannon fodder or assembly line assembler.

  5. I want it both ways. I want a
    I want it both ways. I want a conversation as to what is art and how valuable is it and what is “the best.” I also want a Pamuk. The problem is I want a hundred Pamuks. But they’re accidents of nature. We don’t nurture them as children or even adolescents BEFORE they write and win Nobels. And they end up writing nothing while we end up with one Pamuk. There’s room in culture for MORE voices. Instead of truly supporting and nurturing writers, we give a few of them awards; we allow only a few to publish, and only a few of those to flourish. It is screwed up when one writer can win a million bucks but his neighbor struggles to eat and publish and his/her work is not inferior. These disconnects make young people look at writing as if you would have to be out of your antique mind to do it. And who can blame them. They think they’re shying away from the suffocation when what they’re really shying away from is the bloated way in which rejection is not a dynamic but a way of life.

  6. the anti-MFA diatribeThe
    the anti-MFA diatribe

    The whole anti-MFA diatribe has already been written about on numerous occasions.

    Type-casting MFAers as being sheep who all end up with the same cookie-cutter writing is the most inane rant. Is Flannery O’Connor similar to Marilynne Robinson? Raymond Carver to Brady Udall? Charles D’Ambrosio to Elizabeth McCracken? ZZ Packer to John Cheever? Denis Johnson to T.C. Boyle? And so on and so on and so on. Those are prime examples solely from Iowa.

    The only thing an MFA does is acknowledge that writing is equal parts art and craft. Are you going to tell me you wait to write until inspiration hits? Until the gods bless you and the sunlight glints through your glasses at just the right angle to inspire those next few lines, those next few pages? No, of course not. You write according to your own regimen, but one that allows as much time as possible to write.

    MFA programs are about making connections and helping hone the crafts necessary to write better. No MFA program took a hack writer and made him/her the next Updike. Some fantastic writers have been borne who never once stepped foot into an MFA classroom. Nabokov. Capote. Updike. Still, the rest of us are admitting it wouldn’t hurt to have a little help.

    Sometimes things stay on the “fringe” because they’re not good enough to get “in” with the rest.

  7. To contradict myselfWe are a
    To contradict myself

    We are a tribe. We are the ones who try to create from words. We do it differently from every other one of us, but we are linked by the crazy pursuit and customs of the pursuit and the tropes essential to it. Within is infinite diversity in infinite combination appearing chaotic, but nonetheless linked. Love of the pursuit, or hate of it, a compulsion for it, the escape it creates, the pain it substitutes for the pain it alleviates, and sometimes furthers, are individual things peculiar to those in the tribe. We all sit around the same fire telling stories, though. Even as we try to avoid being like anyone else we draw those like us to us: a coterie, a Generation, a website, and swap the works we love looking for that connection to each other, but even more to how to keep writing how we need to write. For, yes, solitude is essential. I am alone in a room full of people whose noise screens out the voices inside enough to let them out coherently. Honest solitude is useful to the work, but painful, sometimes destructively so. How I feel about solitude, originality, or any other aspect of the process, again is peculiar, idiosyncratic, but the adherence we have to our idiosyncrasies is a commonality bent towards writing and is one of the (endless?) things which make us a tribe.

  8. The outsider is the only
    The outsider is the only …

    … worthwhile artist. Which is to say, not somebody who doesn’t try to get in, but somebody who just does their own thing.

    I think MFAs and workshop certificates are complete black marks – it shows an incredible lack of confidence, and an obsession with being good in the eyes of others.

    If you don’t have strong enough ideas and opinions to do these things on your own, then what you write isn’t going to be all that great.. it comes from within, and if you don’t get it, then you just don’t have it… I bet most writers live their lives as a perpetual inspiration … inside their imagination … which is why to these people MFAs are ridiculous. And, I think that’s what we’re seeing with the current state of American fiction – ridiculously bland, consesus-driven junk by these boring “connection makers” at Columbia or Iowa, etc.

    You don’t need to take classes to keep up with Literary Techniques (they’re in the books you read themselves), and making connections? What is this, Hollywood? No matter what you’re not going to make a living as a writer anyway, unless you’ve got a huge f’ing marketing machine behind you like the ghost-writing powered James Patterson.

    Anyway. What a thing to debate about.

  9. Solid Writer Examples & A
    Solid Writer Examples & A Suggestion

    Without any research, off the top of my head, I can cite: Ray Carver taught school, as did John Gardener, Robert Stone, and Tobias Wolff. In his salon.com interview, Wolff said that he teaches students most of all to edit.

    The best selling author alive, Stephen King used to teach school and even wrote a style book, as did E. B. White, whose Strunk & White Elements of Style is now in its fourth edition and was first published 80 years ago. White’s three children’s books are considered classics in the genre.
    Speaking from experience, I taught two semesters of writing in China and was the person who learned the most, judging from my students’ homework.

    Possibly what could be said of the MFA could be true of what they said of cocaine in the pre-crack era: it’s God’s way of telling you that you have too much money.
    For a writer to have friends that can give feedback and edit is invaluable.

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