Thursday, September 22, 2011

Becoming a Writer :: You don't need permission from anyone

The other day, I cleaned out my art studio and learned something about myself as a writer.

The art instruction in my small mid-Missouri hometown was only so-so. Certainly there weren't any figure drawing classes to be had and since what I really wanted to do (or thought I did at the time) was draw comic books, that was more than a little frustrating for young Scottie.

So I taught myself.

I did it by tracing comic books. I traced page after page of Xmen, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, GI Joe, and even Archie & Jughead. I filled entire notebooks with page after page of traced comic books.  At one point in my life, no piece of paper was safe. My dad had to lock away the onionskin typing paper because if he didn't it wouldn't be there when he went looking for it.

I did it over and over and over again until one day I didn't need to anymore. My hand had learned how to draw the human form in every style that was popular in the comics world at the time.

I was thinking about this last weekend when the cleaning bug overwhelmed the writing bug and sent me into the darkest corners of my art studio with a bucket and spade and a wild glint in my eye.*  By Monday, I had a usable art studio again and a pile of boxes filled with the earliest drawings and short stories that I still own.**

"Scott Perkins" it said, "This is your life in words and pictures."

I know how I learned to draw because it was a conscious effort on my part. I set out to become a comic book artist. Art school gave me exposure to the industry and I decided I wanted no part of it (at least not as an artist).  That doesn't mean I've forgotten how to draw. I can still sit down and knock out a page of Xmen in the style of Jim Lee or Spiderman in the style of Todd MacFarlane.***

I know how I learned to draw, but I only have an inkling of how I learned to write.

My sister taught me my letters. She's two years older and when she and her friends wanted to play school, I was their default pupil. But she didn't teach me how to write.  My dad insisted that I be a reader. He told these amazing stories and he taught me to love books, but he didn't teach me to write them.

I wasn't completely sure how it happened until I opened that time capsule of old stories and discovered that I had trained my writing hand much the same way I trained my drawing hand.

In that box I found snippets of unfinished stories that were very noticeably written to ape the styles of Ray Bradbury, JRR Tolkien, William Gibson, Terry Brooks... And just about every other writer I read when I was still learning how to pin the stories to the paper with words.

Which brings us full-circle.

Yesterday, someone sent me an article from the LA Times about Ann Patchett. The standout quote for me was this:
"No one should go into debt to study creative writing. It’s simply not worth it.  Do not think of it as an investment in yourself that you’ll be able to recoup later on.  This is not medical school."
                                     -Ann Patchett

I work at a college and I'm a writer. When students with a writing bent hear this, they rush into my office to tell me that they're majoring in English! Some of them voice an intention of going on to University to get an MFA in creative writing.

Oh. Are you?

At that point, I don't know what to say. If I know them really well, I tell them that I think every college student should major in something that pays the bills and minor in something that stimulates their soul. This advice is hard-won and you would do well to listen to it.

If I don't know them well, I wish them success and give them my card, which directs them here.

Welcome students!

Now I'm going to say what I should have said when you talked to me at school.

Unless you want to teach, the schools aren't going to teach you anything you cannot learn much better and at less expense by sitting down and doing it.  Major in business; it's more useful to an artist than an art degree, I assure you. Ignorance of business principles is the number one reason why artists starve.

No, I'm not kidding.

I didn't major in English or writing; I majored in journalism and then left that program to go to art school. That is how hard won advice is hard won. Art school taught me a lot about finances -- mostly student loan finances and structured payments. Everything I actually know about art or writing, I taught myself or learned by doing it.

Every successful writer or artist or photographer I've ever known has done the same thing. Every one of them. Almost all of the people I went to art school with now work in other industries. None of the ones I've kept in touch with is a professional full-time artist of any sort. Every full-time artist or writer I know majored in something else.

That's worth remembering.

I'm not saying that if you're in college right now, majoring in writing or English, that you need to change your major or drop out. Far from it. For God's sake, finish your degree. It's worthwhile to get something for all that money you've spent.

Certainly there are those who might need that help or need the structure in order to achieve their goals. I applaud you your efforts. Like I said, I work in academia. I know how hard it is to get from your admission letter to your diploma.

When you walk down the aisle in your cap and gown, you'll have accomplished something. Good on you.

But that diploma is not what allows you to call yourself a writer or an author. Only writing can do that. A writer is someone who writes. An author is anyone who has finished a novel. Neither title requires a degree or initials after your name.

An arts education isn't something that happens at an institution, it's something that happens in your head. The ivy covered walls, the brick paths, the echoing classrooms... it's all stage dressing for the artist.  When you type The End at the end of your first novel or short story that's worthy of letting out of the drawer, that's a graduation of its own.  No professor required.  The novel is your diploma.

So don't worry if the first stories will sound a lot like what you've been reading. Those first drawings will look like your favorite artists. You might have to spend awhile tracing and mimicking before you're ready to show your stuff to someone else.

That's okay. It takes time to develop a style of your own.

Writing a novel is a lot like going to college in many ways. When you're in the weeds, it's important tto remember your goal, that you're working toward something. Graduation? Writing "The End"? You know your goal. Keep going. Introduce changes as you go, learn from your mistakes, join a writing group, get feedback from people you love at first and then later from people who have no reason to be nice to you.

Because 'Artist' and 'Writer' aren't title is bestowed by an institution, they're something  you pick up and run away with before anyone can stop you.

The only way to become a writer is to write something.

So what are you waiting for? You don't need my permission.

- Scott

Here are some other posts you might like...

* According to my wife. I wasn't looking in the mirror, I was madly shoveling old papers into the recycle bin, so we'll have to take her word for it.

** Being an inveterate packrat, that means most of them. I've moved all over the United States, and was more inclined to leave behind furniture so I could take with me the boxes of old artwork. It's an illness.

*** I can still copy the styles of any artist you show me. Most of the time these days, I'm making props for friends and I once filled a small sketch diary with drawings in the style of Leonardo Davinci. I'd have made a great art forger if my parents hadn't taught me to be so darned honest.

1 comment:

  1. Well said! This advice applies equally well if you substitute "composer" for artist, and my first compositions definitely sounded a lot like the music I was listening to at the time.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).