Friday, November 18, 2016

Where do writers come from?

The best American writers have come from the hinterlands -- Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, Steinbeck. Most of them never even went to college.
Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

The title of Edward Abbey's last book, written or rather compiled at the end of his life, is more than a metaphor, He spent much of his life in the wilderness of the American West. He had an aversion to citified, over-educated people, so it was perhaps natural that he admired those American writers who were more rural than urban, more self-educated than college-educated.

But was he right? Do the best writers come from the hinterlands? Have the best writers avoided college? He compiled quite a list of great American writers, but one could also compile an impressive list of great American writers who grew up in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and who attended college and, in some cases, taught college courses.

What Abbey perhaps should have said is that where one is from or how much education one has received has nothing, or virtually nothing, to do with writing talent. Either you've got it or you don't.

Thomas Wolfe
To pay the bills, many gifted writers teach college creative writing classes. These classes may help talented students become better writers, mostly by giving them incentive to actually write and then giving them feedback on what they have written. But if you can't write well on the first day of class, chances are you are still not going to be able to write well on the last day of class.

Because great writers are born, not made, they are likely to be born anywhere. At the time the writers on Abbey's list were born, there were probably more Americans born in rural areas than in urban areas. So that's where most of the best writers came from. Today more babies are born and raised in cities, so most great writers living today and in the future will probably be more urban. Also, more young people attend college today than at the time Twain, London, Faulkner, etc., lived. So more writers are going to be college-educated.

All of this means nothing. Great writers can show up anywhere at anytime. They probably should learn to read and write at some point, but after that, education doesn't matter much either.

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