Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Prepping for Writers, and is working in Journalism better than an MFA?

My writer go-bag contains 2 each of my books, pens, bookmarks, giveaways, a credit card phone attachment, a name tag, business cards, and breath mints. I keep it in the trunk of my car, next to the air compressor, jumper cables, first aid kit, old coat, and rain slicker.

No, I'm not preparing for the zombie apocalypse, I just like to be ready for when someone asks, "can you do a reading?"

And it happens a lot. For a relatively new writer, I was surprised at how often. Not only readings, but all kinds of events. Recently my friend Liz Moore, teacher and journalist, asked me to speak to her class at William Paterson University and be interviewed by her students. She gave me some lead time, but I was already prepared. All I needed to do was show up in my work clothes--I have a day job, so I can't lounge around in pajamas--and show up.

As I told the class the only problem with asking a writer to talk about themselves for 20 minutes is getting us to stop. I'll admit, at first I was intimidated. The usual impostor syndrome and "who am I to talk, I've only written four novels" stuff. But then I thought of all the times friends and strangers asked me about writing. They are genuinely interested, because the mythology we've built around it makes it seem mystical and difficult. So I threw the workman lines at them early. This was a journalism class, so it was easy to compare. You don't sit around waiting for inspiration when you're a journalist. You have a deadline, and the story must be done by then, and so many words. It's a job, like putting in a bathroom tile floor in eight hours. You just do it, you don't nibble your grout trowel and try to channel the muse.

And to me, writing is the same way. It can be hard, but once you get your butt in the chair you are infinitely more likely to write than if you are sprawled on the couch berating yourself for bingeing NetFlix. That's Joe Lansdale's advice, to get in the chair. You will usually write something. I also pulled out the immortal Robert B. Parker line about "plumber's block" and tied it into journalism. And I voiced my regrets over not minoring in journalism and interning at a paper, and working at one. With a nice I.T. career, I can write and not have to put beans on the table, but I envy my former journo friends their careers. And I'm not joking. You get great discipline from all that writing, you learn to write quickly with clarity, and you have a strong network of fellow writers and reviewers in the industry.

And now we need journalists more than ever, so it may be more useful than an MFA. If I could turn back time, I know which path I'd choose. Unless I could get into an MFA program run by a writer idol like Annie Dillard, I'd choose journalism every time.

The students asked me good questions. One wanted to know if I approached "inspirational" fiction differently than "entertaining" fiction, and I thought that was a very polite way to frame the literary vs. genre debate. I did not hold back, though I was polite. I said that entertaining someone can inspire them, and escapist fiction is more inspirational than ever. The line between them is fuzzy. A good story is entertaining and inspiring. If you are not inspired by a cathartic genre story, perhaps you have been taught not to be? And likewise, if you demand action in your stories, why? Some of the best genre stories ever written have nearly zero action. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is almost pure exposition. "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" by Robert Bloch, as well.

Open your mind a little. I tried to be inspiring with my answers, because writing will always be important. It strengthens our empathy, and we can all use more of that.


Art Taylor said...

Fun post, Tom—and insightful as always. I like the idea of a writer "go-bag" too!

David Nemeth said...

I think an MFA can earn more money than a Journalism degree today. ;-)

Claire Booth said...

I agree completely! I wouldn't trade my journalism degree or career as a reporter for anything. It is excellent training for writing novels. I would have loved to hear your talk to that class!