Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Makes a Writer?

There are some today who will say you can’t be serious about writing unless you pursue an MFA.

I believe in education. But I don’t believe it begins or ends with a certain number of years in a classroom. It’s a lifelong process, one that benefits most by experience. We—Americans in particular—have a tendency to place more stock in degrees than actual education.

Ray Bradbury once advised a person who wanted to write to stay away from college. In his opinion the only way to learn to write was to do it—everyday. His second bit of advice was to believe in oneself.

I thought it might be interesting to consider some writers who succeeded by that example.

Edgar Allan Poe tops my list. He dropped out of the University of Virginia after one semester. He later failed as a cadet at West Point. Considered one of America’s greatest writers today, he received little recognition during his lifetime.

John Steinbeck. Attended Stanford University for five years but did not graduate. A Nobel Prize winner, many of his works are now on required reading lists for schools across the nation. He was a man with a wide range of interests—from marine biology to mythology.

Katherine Anne Porter, a major voice in 20th century American literature, supported herself with journalism and hack writing. Her first book, Flowering Judas, met with only modest sales and it was nearly 10 years later that she published a second book. Her skill as a writer of short stories is beyond question. Porter’s only formal education beyond grammar school was a year at a private Methodist school.

Dashiell Hammett dropped out of school at the age of 13. He published his first short story at the age of 28, honed his skills in the pulp field and published his first book at 34. He wrote only five books but is considered one of the most influential writers of his time.

Isaac Barshevis Singer dropped out of rabbinical school after only two years and supported himself for most of his life as a journalist, translator and proof reader. Championed by Saul Bellow and other writers, he published his first novel in English in 1950, won fame and, eventually, a Nobel Prize.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, now considered the leading writer of America’s Jazz Age, was not considered a gifted writer during his lifetime. It was not until after his death in 1940 that his books won him wide recognition. He attended Princeton, but left without a degree.

Eugene O’Neil dropped out of Princeton before completing his first year. He was in his 30s before audiences responded to his genius with the 1920 production of Beyond the Horizon. Though he won a Nobel Prize in 1936 it wasn’t until after his death in 1953 that he was acknowledged as one of America’s greatest writers.

Then there’s Lillian Hellman who attended both Columbia and New York University but left both without a degree. She gained world renown as a playwright, activist and memoirist.

Theodore Dreiser. Doubleday tried to get out of its contract with him for Sister Carrie because the wife of the publisher regarded it as an amoral book. The company printed the book in 1900 but did not advertise or distribute it and it did not become available to the public until 1912 when another publisher issued it. Dreiser attended Indiana University for one year.

The list goes on and on. But I think this enough to demonstrate it is not the degree but the writing makes the writer.

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