After I got home Sandra Bernhart came on the TV. She sang a cover of the Tom Waits tune Downtown Train crediting it, as cretins usually do, to Rod Stewart. I like her though, for her confidence and often find her hilarious. Then there was some guest talking about a women’s conference that totally excluded men, including male infants. Everyone seemed to think it was a great idea. Boy George talked about his obsession with Bowie, and thoughts I was having earlier today started bugging me.
I was thinking about the qualities I admire most in writers. I like writers who write about what they know. That’s the most amazing thing to me about Jane Austen. There are never any scenes in her books where men are speaking alone; that’s because she was not a man, and had no idea what men say when they are alone. So she didn’t write it. She did, however, create convincing portrayals of men based on her observations. So, when I read Too hot to handle in the SF Gate it really bugged me. I don’t feel qualified to write or talk about homosexuality. I don’t feel qualified to write about what a woman feels. I have no idea; these things are totally outside my experience. Consequently, while I enjoy reading a lot of authors that are gay, or women, or both I do not feel that it is a model that I can emulate as a writer. Because they are different is the main reason to read them. It’s educational, but I can’t say that I really find it useful in crafting my own pieces. I can’t emulate them. I don’t have those experiences to draw from.
Terry Eagleton’s observation about the fringe becoming the center is very apparent in the selection of essays assigned to aspiring writers. Just how useful is this, really? I can see that its important in the realm of literature, to make sure that all human experience is represented. But what good does it do for the typical farmboy trying to learn to write in Arkansas to be thrust into narratives of gays in New York? It’s more about writing as social engineering, trying to get people with more limited life experiences to open up to the rest of the world. That’s great in a literature class. But in a writing class? It seems to me that matching the writing samples to the demographic, giving people writing that they can identify with more closely might be better. But that’s dangerous, too. I’m a bit of a punk-rock kid; if you gave me stories of small town life and going to church on Sunday (the general cross section around here) I’d puke and find nothing to identify with. I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s probably somewhere in the middle. All I know for sure is that I can’t write from a woman’s or a gay’s perspective. It would be really foolish to try. Can’t I just be okay with being me, without being engineered into something else? I’ve got my own sort of fringe, and I trip on it all the time.
The first assignment in my expository writing class is to write about a multicultural experience. The teacher said that she ran into trouble with one student a long time ago who literally had never had one. Not a problem with me. But it made me think about why the curriculum forces students to confront these issues in a writing class. Psychology or Sociology are required courses. Foreign Languages are required. Dealing with these issues, in those classes, seems perfectly logical. Why does it have to be part of writing? I suppose it’s my feeling that writing is a craft that gets in the way. I think writing classes should do everything they can to improve the craft. I remember a guy I knew in California (originally from Texas) who when forced to write about multiculturalism, wrote a fabricated essay because he had no experience to draw upon, and was totally unwilling to go out and have one. He wasn’t so much a bigot, as he was afraid of people different from him. I suspect that is what happens in most of these writing classes, when students are asked to write about topics they know nothing about.
Teaching observation, research, and the sheer craft of concise writing is a full enough study I think, without resorting to attempts at social engineering. This stuff really bugs me. The writing curriculum I have been exposed to most of my career consists more of sensitivity training than anything remotely resembling writing. I value writers who are different from me; I just don’t want to be forced to write like them. But finding the voice that seems right to you is now at a pole completely opposed to writing as it exists in the classroom. I feel relatively sure that I will be condemned as a romantic. That’s fine; in it’s broadest context, the label fits. It fits because I value emotion over reason, not because I value the individual over society. Valuing emotion, I’d be an idiot not to listen to the emotions of people who are different from me; there is a lot of passionate writing from women, minorities, and gays. But I can’t write like them, because I’m not one of them.
Unless I want to write fiction, I’m stuck with writing like me.