A Writer's Education
who fancy themselves "creative writers" today usually go
the route of the M.F.A. program, where they may perfect their inconsequential
drivel in the comfort of the writer's workshop. I had a similar aspiration
in the fall of 2002 when I got into Naropa University's creative writing program
in Boulder, Colorado. I was going to be a poet, crafting untold heaps of free
verse meaninglessness in the comfort of a lily-white institution, until I
got a call from The BEAST.
are a scam, plain and simple. If you want to rack up tens of thousands of
dollars in debt while writing work completely alienated from the real world,
then by all means, join an M.F.A. program. Though they hold the lofty goal
of giving aspiring writers a free space to perfect their craft, in practice
they exist first and foremost to perpetuate the M.F.A. system. After spending
two-three years learning to write in the "literary" style, submitting
short stories and poems to any of thousands of low-paying "literary"
magazines, the aspiring writer has little choice but to take a job as a writing
teacher in order to pay off the debt accrued in a writing program. Thus,
the cycle continues.
The BEAST gave
me a way out of this lifetime of debt servitude. I was brought on as Art Director,
but soon found myself as Editor-in-Chief when the founders took off for more
promising waters. Overnight, I was in charge of a biweekly news organization
with a circulation of 10,000, and I had never taken a journalism class. To
say The BEAST was a learning experience is an understatement.
First and foremost,
I learned what it meant to be accountable. The BEAST of 2003 was basically
a Matt Taibbi / Mark Ames fanclub, and my cohorts and I (Brian Sek, Gabe Armstrong,
Chris Riordan and others) used it as a platform to flaunt our complete disregard
for journalistic responsibility by printing libelous rants on everyone from
the anti-war movement to Kirk Cameron to the After Six nightclub magazine.
I don't think an issue went by without us receiving a torrent of hate mail,
a cease-and-desist order, or a tearful call from newly-departed girlfriend.
It got so bad that Taibbi, by then working for The New York Press,
had to send me a personal email reminding me that "a newspaper is like
a loaded gun” and that I was pointing it in all the wrong directions.
Yet each overstep
was in service to the real task facing every writer: to do something interesting.
As an M.F.A. writer, the most I could have hoped for was a few colleagues
noticing a short story I wrote for Glimmer Train. But to have my words
appearing every two weeks on the free newspaper racks of every bar and restaurant
in a city of 600,000 gave me direct access to the literary opinions of the
common, and often drunk, man. Feedback became an addiction, and each issue
saw us pushing the bounds of what we could do with the printed medium. In
response to the war, we ran an editorial calling for a pre-emptive strike
against a rival newspaper. To call attention to the plans for a downtown casino,
we got drunk on malt liquor and stormed the Seneca Niagara. In response to
the Critical Mass police riot, we did an Artvoice send-up and covered
the incident as though it were piece of performance art.
me to a third point: relevance. I sat in on a number of workshop classes
during my M.F.A. search, and I was often struck by the amount of self importance
each writer gave their dithering works-in-progress. One girl had spent an
entire semester on a short story comparing her mother to Greta Garbo. Another
student was working his way through a poetic cycle on backpacking in Europe.
Yet a third was making odd comparisons between Fruit Roll-Ups and the UV lights
at Target. Though each sentence was finely wrought, each observation dazzled
the senses, and each character bloomed on the page, the ideas these writers
contributed amounted to about six drops of semen on a dead clown’s stomach.
Camille Paglia has been outspoken in her denunciation of M.F.A.-style writing.
As she said in an interview with The Morning News, “[T]o be a good
writer you can’t just study writing. You have to live, OK? That’s the
problem. The best writers have drawn from actual experience… What experiences
do people have any more?”
Needless to say,
The BEAST was just such an experience. Through the fights we caused, the minor
celebrities we met, the pranks we pulled, and the Bar-Dak nightclub marathons
we embarked on, the paper functioned as a virtual experience-generating machine
for everyone involved. As such, it provided a crash course in writing which
no ivory tower could ever supply, an ad-hoc M.F.A. scrawled in red and black
on the back of a bar napkin. That it continues to publish is testament to
the fact that American letters will survive, with or without the stagnant
air of academia.
is a writer, blogger, and graphic designer living in Boulder, CO (though
he avoids Naropa like the plague). He will be moving to Austin, TX this summer
as part of his ongoing “field study” of drug-addled hippies living in liberal