Theoretically, there are no actual prerequisites for writing fiction. It’s not like practicing law, which requires three grueling years of school and passing the bar exam. Anyone with a brain, a pen, and paper, is physically capable of writing. And many people do want to write. But few do. Even fewer get published, and fewer still become best-selling authors.
So the question is: How does a wannabe writer become a bona fide one? Are there certain “soft” prerequisites (not required, but greatly advantageous) which someone should achieve before they create compelling, popular fiction? We like to think that absolutely anyone can sit down and write a best-seller, holding up examples like J.K. Rowling, who was subsisting on welfare when she began scribbling the first Harry Potter book on a napkin. But when you look at the majority of the books on the best-seller lists, examples of industry outsiders who score literary success are few and far between.
My thinking on this began when I read a recent article by Sonia Saraiya at AV Club, titled “The Bleak State of American Fiction.” In it, she reviews a new collection of essays edited by Chad Harbach titled MFA vs. NYC. The review, as well as the hundreds of comments, are well worth a read, providing an eye-opening look into the publishing industry. One gets the impression from the book review that the publishing world can be somewhat insular, with a pipeline of MFA students becoming professors or publishers, writing books that only future MFA students read. I began to wonder while reading the article: What actually makes a good writer? As a lawyer needs a law degree, does a literary writer need an MFA? Does she need connections with the publishing industry? Should she live in New York City and mingle with other writers at cocktail parties? Or is the path to publishing (hopefully) more flexible and open than this?
MFA Vs. NYC details how the “program era,” as is called the period of time since World War II when creative-writing programs have flourished in the U.S., is a culturally mediated institution, borne from Cold War politics and what Elif Batuman describes as the shame of the American writer. It is a sharp critique, and a well-earned one—MFA programs seem to produce fiction that is less and less relevant to the lives of everyday Americans, even as their ranks swell with more and more aspiring writers.
I found this assessment especially interesting since I am not very familiar with MFA programs in general. It would seem to me that good fiction should be relevant to the lives of a broad range of people, not just other writers. Literature which is creative and truly novel should draw on different life experiences and areas of expertise. If publishers rely too heavily on the MFA pipeline, they consign themselves to a rather narrow band of human beings: those with the time, money, and inclination to pursue an MFA. Bear in mind that some of the greatest authors in history had non-literary careers before getting published. One of my own personal favorite authors is Mark Twain (I’ve been to his house three times!), and he worked on a steamboat, among other places, in his early years.
Mark Twain in 1909 (via wikipedia)
John Grisham, author of countless legal thrillers, was a lawyer before he started writing. This is especially encouraging for me, as a lawyer who wants to publish fiction. However, my area of legal practice (estate and tax planning) is quite possibly the least exciting subject for a novel.
Anyway, what I have come to realize is that more important to the craft of successful fiction writing is actual lived experience, rather than a series of intensive workshops with other aspiring writers or a degree on the wall. Get out in the world and try new things. Travel. Join groups. Volunteer. Above all, meet people. Colorful characters in fiction are born from interactions with colorful real life people.
Call me risk-averse or whatever (I’ll gladly accept the label), but I also believe that it just makes practical sense to hold down a day job while working on getting published. And probably even after getting published. One of the essays in MFA vs. NYC, which has already gone viral, is about a woman who received a $200,000 advance for her first novel, which did not sell very well, and she ended up spending it all and going into bankruptcy because she only worked part-time as a yoga instructor. The lesson here is that it is exceedingly difficult to actually make a living as a writer, and unless you are comfortable with a high amount of risk, don’t quit your day job (at least until you’re making J.K. Rowling amounts of money). Writing is an activity that can be done entirely on your own time.
Flannery O’Connor one said, “Nothing needs to happen to a writer’s life after they are 20. By then they’ve experienced more than enough to last their creative life.” I would extend that age to 30. Finish your education and start a career. Move in some unexpected directions. Live on your own and rely on yourself. Once you ground yourself and begin to struggle with how to order your life, then you will gain the perspective you need to write truly compelling fiction.
The prerequisite is your life. Go live it.