Are You Experienced?

Inspired by the recent conversation about Kerouac’s military records, LitKicks member Andeh writes:

“Does one need any training or formal education to become a true writer, or legitimate? When I think of some of my favorite authors, I think of people who never graduated high school, but also people who have MFAs in Creative Writing.

I don’t think one needs to have training. If you’re a good writer, you are good. And with time one can improve in writing, but I wonder if others think one can only improve at writing by getting degrees in English, or racking up credits or higher degrees.

I’m sure this is an argument out there, somewhere. I know that a lot of literary magazines seem to think that people with degrees and sometimes from prominent programs or workshops?) are preferred. I don’t see many people with not much experience being embraced in those situations. Is that a coincidence?

I don’t know, when I read a good writer, I don’t want to judge them by their writing or academic background. It’s what’s in their words. Do they move me? That’s what really matters, I think. What do others think, now?”

25 Responses

  1. Well, the way I see it…Of
    Well, the way I see it…

    Of course you don’t need a degree. It’s one route to take, but there are others. You have to be honest with yourself. Here is what I mean:

    I assume most people who want to be writers also read. You know whether or not you like something when you read it. So, write something, then go back a day or a few days later, and read it, and ask yourself, is this really any good? If I picked up a book or magazine and read this, would I like it?

    Now, having said that, I will say this: I did take college classes in English composition, journalism, various literature courses, creative writing, and I loved them! They were fun and I believe they really helped me (although at the time I got angry because I didn’t handle criticism well, but looking back, the teachers were usually right).
    On the other hand, a friend of mine is pushing me to go back to school for a Masters in English. I keep telling him, “Why? To get a master’s degree, you have to write a thesis, which is basically a book. I’ve already written a book!”

    To which he says, “But wouldn’t it be a better book if a qualified professor critiqued it?”

    To which I reply, “I serioulsy doubt it.”

    Of course, I may be wrong. But, Ahhhh, who gives a rat’s ass. Do whatever your heart tells you. I mean, unless your heart tells you to put off writing every day to get drunk. Then, your brain might say, “We’re not getting any writing done.” But as soon as your brain gets you back on track, follow your heart again.

  2. NopeWhat’s most important is

    What’s most important is education. Before I read anything by a writer I do in-depth analyses of their education, GPA, shoe size, favorite foods and family heritage. It’s the only way to tell if a writer is truly good. Heh.

  3. you want a degreeYou want a
    you want a degree

    You want a degree even if you don’t need one. I know this because I fucked around the whole time I was supposed to be doing the school thing. Instead I whent hitch-hiking and got high a lot, only to realize that all people want to read these days is happy well written scholarly writing. Or a book about jesus’s hench men or the other way around.

    Also in school you get all kinds of connections and it helps you network-I think networking is just knowing people who know people and so on. I have not read one writer with the exception of Henry Miller that didn’t go to university. But Miller could do what he wanted and so could Kerouac (dropping out of university) because it had not been done before, and that is okay. Now everything has been done and there is no renaissance of literature or “the next big thing” hitting down and blowing anyone’s mind and if there were it be the university graduates that were doing it.

    In short, I have been trying to get somewhere with no schooling. GO TO SCHOOL!!!!!, or hang out inschools and public libraries as much as possible — get a card!

  4. Formal Training HelpsAn MFA
    Formal Training Helps

    An MFA will get you the right connections to the literary agent community.

    It also certainly helps to know the technical aspects of writing although the creative spark, nobody can teach you that: That part comes from within.

    Anybody can be a writer just by writing. Getting published, becoming a published writer, now that is a whole other ball game.

    As for Jack, well he got a lucky break from getting let out of the navy. I’m glad he did.

    He got published twice. The first time he attracted some critical attention from The Town and The City. It took more than seven agonizing years before he published On The Road. Fortunately, the regular book critic at the New York Times was not on duty and his book caught the attention of the back-up critic, who, rightfully so, hailed Kerouac as the voice of a generation.

    It’s too bad Kerouac had trouble accepting that mantle, inasmuch as he was seven years older, wiser, more bitter, and a heavy drinker by the time fame caught up with him. It killed him.

  5. to writeor to drinkthat is
    to write
    or to drink
    that is the question

    i am no good at writing drunk
    i am no Bukowski
    but lately i have not been writing
    when it comes to words
    i am just a whiskey bum

  6. yes and noI certainly don’t
    yes and no

    I certainly don’t think that a degree is a necessity or prerequisite for good writing or any other art form (painting, sculpture, writing or playing music, etc.) On the flip side, however, I don’t think that higher education is necessarily detrimental or a hindrance to writing. I think that formal education can help mold some raw talents while being totally superfluous to others. Anybody who writes (as Billectric put it) also reads and more or less engages in the educational process anyway.

  7. the three chicken leg
    the three chicken leg question

    is this a rhetorical question?

    it’s like asking if the chicken crosses the road, or what came first, chick, or eggnog.

    ok i’ll take a stab at it, or give my rake in the leaves of the truth or con, and here it is, everybody is unique some people like sitting in a classroom to get their life experience handed to them on a silver platter.

    no stain, no blame, but is it lame?


    does it matter as far as who gets published?, well, obviously there are certain….ah, certain vested interests, at large, and probably if you go the more calculated route, you will have a better chance at fitting into the market driven lane … play the game.

    hey; who wants to be a rolling stone anymore? with no direction home, a complete unknown? with the language you used?

    and here is the booby prize, if you go the academic route, and i’m taking here, as far as taking creative writing classes and the whole bag, and you have a nice
    starbuck life, and mind your peas, and Q’s you most certainly will get
    the mediocre good trained rat writer award. nuff.

    and maybe if you hitch a ride to nowhere, you will never see the light of a printed guarantee handed at the far side. no devil deal, delivered at your pad, with a nice neat bow attached.

    but we talkin apples and oranges here baby, cus, either way, it really comes down to who you are. there are exceptions to any outcome.

    ya take ya learn one way or the other. whatever.

  8. You should also do that head
    You should also do that head phrenology thing, where you analyze the bumps on their skull. I can tell a true writer instantly with this method. Take that Jota fellow who posts on LitKicks sometimes. He has a teradactyl ridge, starting from his crown, extending to the base of his neck. This accounts for his immunity to scotch and tobacco when he’s in a writing frenzy over there in Ensano, California. This is meant as a compliment, by the way. Jota is a good man and a trooper by any standard, as long as he doesn’t call you up in the middle of the night while you’re trying to get busy with your woman, hollering, “Billectric! What time is it there? Let’s hop a freighter to Australia and drop in on Feral!” in that distinctive west coast accept of his.

  9. I have a young friend who
    I have a young friend who just got out of the Navy and he wants to be a writer. He wants to get a part-time job somewhere and write the rest of the time, and live in the same bohemian community i used to live in, and share the rent with two or three other people. Which is all fine, I told him, but the one most important thing I suggested to him is this: If you are going to get a job or part-time job anyway, get it somewhere that has something to do with writing! A book store, a newspaper, a library, maybe even a printer like Kinkos or whatever. But don’t do what I did…squander your time working jobs that had nothing to do with writing just to make a living.

  10. Jota has a point. I think
    Jota has a point. I think Ginsberg helped Kerouac quite a bit, too, didn’t he? I have one question. What is an MFA? Because you don’t want to hear what I made up for those initials.

  11. I guess another way to put it
    I guess another way to put it is, why not go to college? If it’s too expensive, or you don’t want to take all the core requirements, just take one class. Then maybe another one the next semester. You meet people. You can’t help but get something out of it.

  12. You know what you probably
    You know what you probably know more about writing than a “professor” of English. Really, name me one great writer who has an advanced degree? None. How come graduate students in English aren’t our great writers? Because they know all the rules & are respectful of them, but those that are willing to violate the rules become the great writers, students stay in school, writers go out into the world & EXPERIENCE!

  13. Master of Fine Arts, billuh
    Master of Fine Arts, bill

    uh huh
    walking the walk

    and yes, it helps to study in school. Anything helps, but most specially having to write on any topic within established time limits and then editing, pruning and re-vamping to make it sound as my brain intended.

    If someone else looks over my shoulder when i need it and comments – yes/no; re-check; clarify – all that is good.

    School, ideally, would provide that over the shoulder objective voice. But in this day and age of tenure and who knows what, that objectivity is not always horribly objective.

    Pick your school – go for your MFA, and bleed the living life out of the experience.

    (if you have the cash)

  14. Gordon Lish would argue that
    Gordon Lish would argue that if one wants to write they shouldn’t associate with publishing in any way.

    That said, I was the only one, the instructor, of my 500 students who learned anything about English composition this year. The nightmare’s nearly over.

  15. Reading, school – get it
    Reading, school – get it all.

    I don’t think it can hurt to get as much formal training as possible, because that will teach you to be able to judge your work objectively, as it did for me in both writing and acting, but I did not go far enough to establish the connections that seem to be necessary today. I don’t mean I would be getting published for creative work otherwise, but someday, it might be frustrating. In MARTIN EDEN, Jack London wrote about how he read intensively, as I and presumably all of you have done. That, I think, is still the first, and most important element.

  16. how old are you man-what you
    how old are you man-what you talking that jive talk at-dig-cus it no way be wordin’ all da sizz. ta dig, ta dig dat? Naw it yaz want to getzz good and gezz yaz workz publish ya need schooling-dig?

  17. So, you more or less concur
    So, you more or less concur with my “rat’s ass” theory.

  18. Interesting AnswersI have
    Interesting Answers

    I have enjoyed reading everyone’s answers. But, I guess, in “experience”, I wasn’t just meaning college. Other things could be asked- do you need to have several novels published, have taken 20 great workshops, or even have been pubished at all, to be great or better at writing. Ah, who knows. Some here think that the education thing is helpful, some say it probably doesn’t matter. As for me, I’m still going to school, but my degree certainly doesn’t have to do with writing. I feel that the School of Life is what affects my writing most, in college, well, I don’t think it has influenced my writing. If someone wants to go to college for writing, I’m sure it’s fine. But as someone else said, does it improve their writing? Someone said here why aren’t all the great writers those academic students. Hmm.

  19. I agree that to be a good
    I agree that to be a good writer you have to read a lot. To take it a step further, Hunter Thompson is known to have typed the entire novel, The Great Gatsby, copying it from the book, just to feel the rhythm of the words. And I think that makes sense.

  20. true writerwell, to begin
    true writer

    well, to begin with, “true” is a problematic word. I wonder if I was a true university student in the last twenty years, but that’s another point. My advice: go to wherever you choose to go and write if you want or if you can.

  21. Ohhhhhh…experience.Well

    Well writing usually feels more true-to-life if the writer has some experience to base it on.

  22. Also, meeting people is not
    Also, meeting people is not just for networking. Another good reason is to meet people who become life-long friends.

  23. I write what I’d like to
    I write what I’d like to read

    It’s simple for me at this point.

    Whenever I make a poem, essay, painting, piece of music, I want it to be something that, if I ran across it in a book or saw it in a gallery, I’d really dig it. I create what I’d like to see. I’m usually successful, and I’m very proud of almost everything I do.

    Even the “failures” have a life and breath of their own.

    I’m almost completely self taught in all media. I basically “quit” school in the 6th grade, although it was another five years before I finally stopped going altogether. Art is a passion for me; more than a passion it’s what I am, what I have been as long as I can remember.

    Every hour of every day, asleep or awake, I’m involved with, enmeshed in, my personal creativity.

    I’m not much worth a damn for anything else.

    People ask me where I went to school. I say: public library, bookstores, museums, galleries.

    I learned by trial and trial. No error(s). Just development.

    Slopping paint ’till I developed a vocabulary. Feeling and dreaming and searching, piecing words together until I could approach it from a place of resonance first, letting the wordless feeling dictate the words, not relying on the words to invoke feeling.

    And I read read read…everything that catches my attention, and, as an exercise in growth, even the things I have a problem with. Same with visual art. I look at EVERYTHING, take what I need to prompt me, guide me, and leave the rest.

    It’s an ongoing, fruitful, and fulfilling education. It’s on my terms and I like it that way.

    I hope it will serve me for years to come.


  24. Defining TermsI think before
    Defining Terms

    I think before we can get closer than we already have with the responses given, we are going to have to define:

    ‘True’ writer and ‘legitimate’.

    I posed a similar question re ‘poet’ on recently.

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