Flannery O’Connor, a fellow writer from Georgia (whose grave I visited down in Milledgeville, Georgia), was once asked whether she felt that universities stifle writers. She replied, “My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” O’Connor died in 1964, and even in the early part of last century, she saw so much bad writing that she felt moved to create a famous quote. She was not speaking out of jealousy toward competition. She was already successful, and as the quote continues, “There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
I don’t know whether the situation has changed since O’Connor said that. I have almost no real information to compare, and therefore I have a firm and irrevocable opinion. It’s worse now. To exaggerate somewhat (i.e. “a lot”), now everyone is a writer. What qualifications does one need to be a writer? (1) Know the alphabet, (2) Be able to compose sentences, (3) Know a few stories. Well, that’s pretty much everyone, isn’t it, including a few of the smarter breeds of dog.
In fact, in a modern society, with rare sad exceptions, everyone does have the capacity to create written text. Recent technology has made this even easier. With computer memory, a text does not have to be typed over and over; with cut and paste and delete, changes can be made quickly; with printers new copies can be made instantly; and with things like…um…blogs, we can even publish ourselves.
And so we have writing groups and writing conferences and writing programs and college degrees in creative writing, which is surely one step above a Bachelor’s degree in witchcraft for a functional college degree. (And OK, I apologize to my friends who have such a degree.)
If I had never been in any writers’ groups I might be less cynical, more ensconced in my naive literary world, believing that people who write generally have some ability and take it seriously. But I’ve been in meetings where someone would say something like, “I’d like to write a book and I’m here to find out more about how to do that.” Or I attended an open reading of writers at which one woman, reading from her “children’s book” used a sock puppet on one hand to supplement the high, squeaky voice she used while reading.
And of course I’ve met people who “want to write” or even go so far as to say that they do, but after a couple of years one learns to stop asking them about it, as it’s clear that it is only talk. Of course they can still tell you why they aren’t writing at the moment. It’s difficult. There’s no time. Etc. I know it’s difficult, but a serious writer, working two jobs, with no computer and a broken hand, would steal the paper, write with one hand, and do without sleep in order to write.
As Flannery O’Connor indicated, there are also people who do finish and even publish what they write, though without the love of craft or respect for the medium that she believed should be applied. When we look out at the clattering keyboards of the world, there are many writers and partial writers and pseudo-writers and kinda-wanna be writers out there.
Every third person you meet doesn’t talk about being a sculptor. A person might bang around on a guitar without claiming to be a musician (alright, other than in rock and roll). So why writing? Writing actually does capture two essential qualities that are of the essence of being human. Writing involves the use of language, and in one sense or another (even in a business letter) it tells stories. There is no one over the age of two years old who does not use language to tell stories. All human beings can relate to this.
So multitudes are going to write, especially as our technology and social structures have given them more ability to do so. And there is nothing that snobs like me can do about it. So sock puppets of the world, unite! Cause you can, like, tell stories and stuff.