Friday, June 30, 2006

TV, Low Brows, College-Less Writers

Graymatter writes in...

Last night I read your book, and it helped clarify much about the MFA for me. Thank you for writing it.

1. How might a low-brow like me fare in a traditional MFA program?
2. What are others’ “takes” on television writing quality these days?
3. Who are some contemporary - alive and publishing, present tense - fiction writers who
did not go to college?

I grew up poor, and I flipped eggs to support my family, starting full time at age fourteen. I always had a book or a pen in my hand after a shift.

At present I’m an “over-forty” undergraduate with three semesters to go (philosophy major). My professors encourage me to pursue a graduate degree. School makes me squirm, though. Academic culture is as familiar to me as that of Uranus. A related cultural clash between the majority of Americans and me is television. I detest it. When ‘Dynasty’ premiered on t.v., my t.v. premiered at the dumpster. The fashions of thought and taste are, I think, reflected by television programming. Furthermore, television writers have college degrees and academic training, according to the bit of research I have done. That said, I begrudge no one their earned pay - including television writers.

Any suggestions or advice you care to offer would be greatly appreciated, should you find the time in your busy schedule to do so.

Those are some eclectic question, Graymatter. I'll answer them in reverse order.

3. Which famous writers never went to college? I have no idea. A lot of them I bet. Anyone have an idea?

2. I think the writing on HBO and FX is stellar. Among the best contemporary writing of any type. Overall though, you're right. TV sucks. Part of being a writer is spending time in your genre. If you want to be a TV writer, watch a lot of TV. If you want to be a novelist or a poet, stay away from excessive TV.

1. I think we've all felt like low-brows before. I remember when I arrived at UMass, and people were talking about this author or that author, or this particular book, and have you read the latest David Foster Wallace story? I was like, "Who is David Foster Wallace?"

Actually, that's not true. I didn't say that. I just nodded my head like an idiot. But somehow, no one seemed to know how little I knew about contemporary literature. Or maybe they did, but they didn't say anything. I had two thoughts after one of those nights: 1. I've got to read a lot more, and 2. These people are much better writers than me.

Well, I was right about the first at least. And I read like crazy, getting suggestions from new friends of mine. But my second worry proved unfounded. I was as good as most and better than some, and more importantly, I wrote as much as I could and began to detect the good from the bad.

This "Tom Kealey Personal Testimony" does have a point. I think. And it is: If you're accepted at a program, you have as much a right to be there as anyone. It didn't matter that I didn't know DFWallace, and it doesn't matter that you flipped eggs at 14, and it doesn't matter that this student went to public school and this other person to prep.

What matters is what you do with your time when you're there. Rock on, Graymatter.


MasterScribe said...

If you're not watching TV, then you can spend more time writing. And that's good.

You don't need an education to write good stories, but don't hold it against those who do pursue degrees and write good stories. It's a wide world and people are complicated; like you, they do what must be done to allow themselves to excel and succeed.

My advice to you is to keep reading and keep writing. Ask yourself WHY you would want to be part of an MFA program. You need to have the right answers to see things through, or else it'll be a waste of your time because you'll start the program thinking of it as such. Like almost everything in life (marriage, the military, small business, etc.), you have to believe in what you're doing to make things work. An education is no different.

RLN said...

Tom Stoppard didn't go to college. He taught himself theoretical physics from books instead. And wrote some great plays.

One of my other favourite writers dropped out of high school at 14, then went to college and graduate school as a mature student.

I have not owned a TV for 6 years. I refuse. It's not been a problem. If you need to make characters talk about modern TV shows, read the TV guide in the newspaper, surf the web, or ask people who watch.

consistently antsy said...

As Tom mentioned (if i may be so familiar to call you "Tom"!) FX has great writing. The show, Nip/Tuck, although a little sordid, has some of the BEST WRITING i've seen on TV. The characters are complex enough to have their own novel--maybe even written by Anne Tyler!

Consider this little gem:

Christian Troy: "None of us get out alive. Now you can huddle in a group and face it one day at a time, or you could be grateful that when your body rubs against someone else's, it explodes with enough pleasure that you can forget, even for a minute, that you're only a walking pile of ashes." [talking about a support group for sex-addicts]

Anyway, Graymatter, if you're interested in some quality TV shows, I'd say Nip/Tuck, and good luck on all your future writing!

graymatter said...

Thanks to all your insights and comments.
Tom Stoppard - he impresses with a capital WOW!!
I hold it against no one who pursues education degrees - I'm jealous.
Going to college straight out of high school is precisely what I expect of my own kids.
Feeling out of place is just a hang-up. I'll get over it or proceed in spite of it.
The MFA, as I understand it, can help me learn how to learn to write well enough to continue as a credible liar/fiction writer. Devoting a couple years to intensive instruction makes sense.

KLynn said...

For what it's worth: When I get my MFA next year, it will be exactly 20 years after I got my BA. I am one of the oldest people in my program and I still feel out of place from time to time. For example, when I first came here, my classmates were spouting names of authors I'd barely heard of, much less read. I felt very undereducated literature-wise.

But then I remind myself that FOR ME, getting an MFA (and moving, leaving an established career, friends, etc.) represented my getting serious about this work I say I love. Other people I know were able to do the low-res MFA, and others are happily writing (more or less) with no MFA at all. I had to quit comparing myself with them, and do what felt right for me.

Re TV: I agree that most of the best writing these days is on cable. Fortunately for me (because I get sucked in a little too easily), I don't have cable.

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