Last Lecture: You’re part of a small army. What will you fight for?

small army meetup
A small-army meetup led by Chris Guillebeau

At the end of the semester, I write a post which functions like a “last lecture” to my students. Here’s one on that perennial question, “Am I a writer?” And here’s another on “What matters more: story or sentences?” Given that one of my classes was mentioned yesterday on Salon.com, I thought I’d focus this semester’s last lecture on the topic of literary citizenship and why I teach it.

What comes next? 

I’ve always done a last lecture, even before I had a blog.

For 15 years, I’ve ended my creative writing classes by showing students how to submit work to literary magazines. This is nothing special; lots of creative writing teachers do this. You bring in a huge stack of magazines, show students how to research where to send their work, how to write a cover letter, how to keep track of submissions, how to deal with the inevitable rejections.

I showed students my rejections. I showed them bad cover letters (names redacted) that I’d swiped from a friend who edited a literary magazine. I talked about how long it can take to place a story—months or years. I ended by saying, “If you want to be a writer, this is the next step you need to take.”

Generally, I got three types of reactions:

  1. Some students got excited about the process of taking the next step.
  2. Some freaked out. They said, “Why didn’t you tell us this sooner? We should have been doing this the whole time!”
  3. Some students zoned out.

I want to talk about these three types of students.

The 1’s who get excited

The 1’s would have pursued a writing life even if I had never talked about how to submit work. Thank god for them. The end.

The 2’s who freak out

The 2’s might pursue the writing life as well, but they are very anxious. To them, I’d say, “No, you should NOT have learned about publishing at the beginning. You’re an apprentice. You’re learning. Most of you aren’t even ready to submit.”

But the truth is that I didn’t teach this sooner because nobody in higher education teaches undergraduate creative writing as a “path to publication” or “employment.” Few faculty talk about publication or professionalization at all, and certainly, nobody puts it first. Not even in graduate programs. For years and years, professionalization has been an anathema in creative writing programs. We aren’t like a journalism or professional writing program. That’s just not what we do. That is changing a little, and I think that’s a good thing, for the most part.

If you thought it would be otherwise, if you thought that we’d teach you in some sort of direct way how to write a best-selling novel or how to make a living, then I’m really sorry.

Why did you believe it would be otherwise?

Well, it certainly wasn’t because we promised that. Here is a list of all undergraduate creative writing programs in the country with links to their websites, and I don’t think you will find any promises other than “we will help you be a better writer.”

The reason you believed that a creative writing program would or should “teach you” how to “get a job as a writer” is that our entire culture has shifted towards this way of thinking. Even the POTUS thinks this way.

Here’s an example.

And why shouldn’t you expect college to function as job training? You are coming of age in difficult times, my students. I know.

But the truth is that arts programs have studied the long-term employment outcomes of their graduates and determined that no, they aren’t all working at Starbucks. They aren’t all working as artists either, which is what they probably wanted, but they are gainfully employed and use what they learned in college in a variety of ways.

This topic is too big for this post, but suffice it to say that a.) you have good reasons to be so anxious, but also b.) you don’t.

The 3’s who zone out

It’s the 3’s who I really worry about. The reason they zone out when I talk about publishing is that they really have no desire to publish. When I ask you to tell me why you’re majoring or minoring in creative writing, I get answers like this:

  • Because I thought it would be fun.
  • Because I like to read.
  • Because I like to read, and it seemed more practical than majoring in literature.
  • Because I didn’t enjoy any other majors, and then I remembered how much I liked reading stories, so….
  • Because I fell in love with the Harry Potter books, and I figured if J.K. Rowling can do it, so can I.
  • Because you have to major in something.

Please understand that I think that all these reasons are valid.

I’m worried about you, and I’m not the only one. I participated in a roundtable interview recently for Scratch magazine, and Dinty Moore who teaches at Ohio University said:

Some students are going to be relentless, unstoppable over the next 15 years until they finally write a book of poetry or a novel that gets them noticed, and gets them on the track for their career. Those students are going to teach themselves; you can’t stop them. But it’s the hundreds of creative majors, or thousands across the country, who aren’t going to go on to be writers—they’re the ones I worry about, who are getting lost, and I want to convince them that writing is not just one path.

Have I shown you some paths, dear students? I’ve tried mightily to give you some stars to steer by.

You’re part of something bigger than yourself

In a few days, my department will graduate 20 newly minted creative writing majors. Maybe you’re one of them.

When I graduated from college in 1991, there were only 10 undergraduate creative writing programs in the country. Today there are 592.

Let’s pretend that 20 students per per program is the average nationwide.

So if you take 20 students times 592, that means that every year, about 12,000 creative writing undergraduates are being loosed upon the world.

You’re a member of a small army. What will you fight for?

When everything changed for me

In 2008, I changed my last-class lecture from “How to submit your work” to “How to be a literary citizen.”

I made this change after reading this post on the Brevity blog. Finally! I had a name for the activity younger writers were engaged in.

Around that time, I’d started asking myself hard questions about my purpose as a teacher of creative writing. This happened because I’d joined Facebook in 2007, and suddenly I was privy to the lives my former students were leading. Some of them were very unhappy and in a lot of debt. Had I contributed to their debt—even passively?

I realized I was part of what D.G. Myers calls “the elephant machine,” a system in which creative writers create more creative writers. I asked myself: Was this a good thing that was happening?

Also in 2008, I read this post by writer Chris Guillebeau, “How to recruit a small army.”

That’s when everything clicked. I decided to stop teaching creative writing as “skills building” and start teaching it as “identify building.”

I wanted my classes to make students “feel like real writers.”

But what if they didn’t feel that way? Was that bad?

God, no.

What I’m saying is this: If you aren’t sure whether or not you want to “be” a writer, that’s fine.

If you think that “being” a writer means publish publish publish, then I want you stop being so focused on flooding the world with your words and start making the world a better place for all words.

If you think that majoring in creative writing means that the only thing you can “be” is a writer or a college professor, then I want you to stop thinking that, because it’s not true. There are many ways to live a literary life even if you never step foot into another institution of higher learning, even if you never write another word of your own imaginative writing. There’s still so much good you can do.

Whether you’re an 1, 2, or 3 kind of student, I want you to be a literary citizen. I want you to go out there and fight the good fight. These are the basic principles.

If you’re a creative writing teacher reading this, please consider this: other disciplines instill a sense of social justice in their majors. Perhaps creative writing should turn its attention to instilling in its majors the literary equivalent of social justice. We could create a corps of people armed and ready to support literary culture whether they “become” writers or not.

Maybe we can create leaders as much as we are creating writers.

If you’d like to learn more, follow @LitCitizen on Twitter or “like” Literary Citizenship on Facebook. You can also subscribe to my course blog here.

CW Programs Literary Citizenship Teaching

6 comments

  1. Eric Long says:

    I think you probably know by this point, but I’m definitely student 3. Not that I don’t find the world of publishing interesting; I’ve just never had the urge to be published. Creative writing is a hobby for me, one I take extreme pride in when I’ve finished something of quality (or at least appears to be of quality to me). With an innate cynical outlook, Literary Citizenship wasn’t really something I felt I could get behind. I felt it was just a circle of backscratching and means to self promotion, but I think that’s because I’ve shut myself off from other for too long. It’s possible to pay someone a genuine compliment about their work and not expect anything in return…. maybe haha. Discarding this perspective was perhaps the hardest part of the class for me. When we were reading the manuscripts sent from your other class under the guise of faux agents, I had a sincere urge to compliment one of the writer’s works. Not really because I thought it would help me in anyway, but because I doubted she knew how great of a writer she was. It’s easier for me to make the connection with students because they haven’t been recognized for their work much. Which I suppose means I’m under the false assumption that any author who has a published book is completely confident in their abilities to the point that a compliment would go unnoticed. I’m still working out some of the details for myself, but this class has made me think about the idea of literary citizenship and how it affects other aspects of my life as well. It isn’t just books that need to be shared with the world; I should be endorsing everything I find genuinely deserving of my praise. It may not have seemed like it at the beginning of the semester, but I really enjoyed the class. It was a fresh exercise next to the monotony of business courses I’m taking.

  2. I’m really glad I took this class. It was a little scary something because I’m naturally introverted and it just felt like I was constantly trying to fight that, but I know that I need to and this class helped me find a great balance between having a close circle of writer friends and knowing how much “citizenship” I’m comfortable with.

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