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Writing Schools

( Originally Published 1944 )

Him I call friend who says that fishes sing

METHODICAL souls wishing to become writers often decide that they will go to school.

If they are isolated from things touching writing and writers they naturally cast around for a school in their home towns.

Because practically everybody wants to write, many colleges, universities, and high schools have classes; even night classes, in creative writing.

If any writer ever went incognito to one of them and turned in a lesson he would be immediately called a dunce, even if what he turned in was copied verbatim from the pages of the Saturday Evening Post or from a novel by Sinclair Lewis.

The reason why this would happen is that there are only two ways to write: your way, and somebody else's way. Naturally the writer who is any good at all writes outlandishly in a fashion and style all his own. Nothing could more soundly irritate the teacher of writing. The teacher in a writing school thinks of only one way of writing as a good way: His Way. Since he cannot write at all, and has a job of teaching writing because he cannot write at all, the situation becomes ambiguous as all get out.

It becomes ambiguous for a very simple reason. If you want to be a plumber you will find that the instructors at schools of plumbing are plumbers. They get more for teaching it than they could get by plumbing, otherwise they wouldn't be plumbing teachers.

If you want to be an aviator, and go to an aviation school, your teacher is an aviator. He has to be; otherwise how could he get you down out of the air after you got up there?

If you want to be a barber you will find that the teachers at barber colleges are barbers; that is the only reason they teach in barbering schools.

But the teacher at a writing school is not a writer. If he were a writer he would be writing instead of teaching. A teacher at a writing school is merely a politician who wangled the job, and out of it has to pay off to keep it. An average salary for such a stooge would be about $157.69 a month. If he could write even one story a month and sell it he'd make more than that. Then what the hell is he teaching writing for? Of course he'll tell you he is a writer. He will have sold a story to Story Magazine for twenty-five bux eight years ago, and he will have a very thin book he had published at his own expense, and seven letters of his that were published in The Voice of the People. But he still is not a writer. If he knew any-thing about it he'd be doing it.

When you go to kindergarten you do not go there to learn to do anything. You go there to learn not to do things. That is, as a young animal, you have to be broken to civilization so that in due course you can grow up to be a soldier and get shot, or a movie producer and get half shot. When you go to grammar school you do not go there to learn anything. You just go there to be made still less antisocial than all brats are to begin with. You go there to get taught lies about our history and the truth about the history of other countries. You go there for a general reason, not a specific one.

The same is true of high school and college. You go to be taught .various fabrications that will cause you to kick in docilely to the current political and religious rackets without asking too many embarrassing questions. You are taught, from kindergarten to post-graduate college, not to think, because if you did think you would be a menace to whatever sacred and secular politicians are in power. And the sacred and secular politicians own the schools.

Of course you can specialize in college, in English; in which case your writing career will be set back many years. You can specialize in composition, in which case when you get through you will be able to write like Charles Lamb. Then, if you can find any-body in Christ's world today who wants someone who can write like Charles Lamb, or Ralph Waldo Emerson, you're hunky dory. You can also specialize in law, medicine, and music. If you do, your teachers will be lawyers, doctors, or musicians; all of them a highly-paid type of professor, making as much, or more, as teachers than they could practicing their professions. But if your teacher of writing is a "writer" he will be a lousy one, else he would be writing instead of teaching.

Sinclair Lewis once took it into his red head to be-come a professor. He went to the University of Wisconsin, at Madison, and tried for a few months to teach young hopefuls something about writing. The whole body of petrified old mullahs went into frenzies at the thought of a real writer teaching writing and he was spewed forth with acrimony which broke over into the newspapers for months to come. After which the University of Wisconsin went quietly back to teaching farmers' sons how to write like Shakespeare, and all was well again.

Any practicing writer in the country today, invited to visit any course in writing, in any high school, college, or university in the land would, after he had heard the teacher expound, make just one ejaculation: ARE YOU KIDDING!

All of which means that you can't go to a school to learn to be a Hemingway, or even a reasonable facsimile thereof. The reason, in short, is simply that writing has no rules. It is the violation of today's rules that makes tomorrow's Big Name writers. So what the hell can you do?

After you have fussed around with a high school or college teacher of writing for a few months, if you have the brains of a louse you will perceive that he hasn't, and you will cast around for other expedients.

You will, through association with the bewildered groups at high school and college writing courses, have come into contact with the various writers' magazines. In them you will notice the advertisements of yet other writing schools of a different sort. A few of these are good. A very few represent what might be called Personalized Service. That is, some old war horse who has been through the mill, instead of teaching you to write, or trying to, will simply view your work with a practiced eye, see what the reason is why it doesn't sell, and try to tell you how to fix it.

So long as he makes no attempt to teach you to write, and so long as his service is personal, that is, done by himself, you have a pretty good chance of getting something tangible out of it. A lot of people who cannot themselves write can tell why a given piece of writing will not sell, and are able to say why in clear language and make suggestions for revision. There is no way possible in which, in general, anyone can tell you how to write or how not to write for either commercial publication or aesthetic publication. Writing cannot be taught, as can plumbing. All plumbing is done according to certain static limitations having to do with the strength of pipes and what not. Even in music there are certain rules. In writing there are no rules. Anyone who tries to learn to write by rule or by rote is a fool and anyone who attempts to teach anyone to write by rule or by rote is either a fool or a knave, possibly both.

In short, the whole transaction depends entirely upon the person who is doing the criticizing. First find out who he is, what he represents, and whether he is taking a hand in it himself. Otherwise you may find yourself a student in a school where the actual work is done by underpaid clerks who themselves never wrote anything and never will write anything. The bigger the "school" organization, the phonier usually it is. The service should be personalized, highly; the help, individual. Every singing teacher and dancing teacher in the country worth anything is one who was himself a singer or dancer, and his instruction is personal, or it is phoney. Such teachers make big money; as big money as they could make singing and dancing themselves. If you can get that kind of help and you can in a few instances you've got something. Otherwise not. And that kind of instruction will cost you plenty. I wish that it were here possible for me to name the very few people who can really help you, but, obviously, I cannot. I can give you one tip, though. Pick out the one who promises the least and costs the most. And when you see an ad packed full of small print and dizzy cuts and designs telling you that You Too Can Be Shelley, beware. As in all advertising, the gaudier the ad the shoddier the product. A good instructor will promise you al-most nothing, charge you plenty, and have an air of dignity. His copy definitely will not go like this:

"Last week l sold Suzy Twitch to the Saturday Evening Post. You too can Twitch."

The top notch ones don't have to ladle out that sort of ballyhoo; and THE TOP NOTCH ONES never TAKE ON ALL COMERS.


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