I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the lowest point in the history of American writers.
Two score and nine years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, gave a speech known as “I Have a Dream.” A great statesman and great writer, he spoke of another American who had lived a hundred years before, also a great statesman and great writer. Their speeches and writings are read and studied to this day and remain beacons of light and hope for millions in America and the world.
But the tragic fact is that the American writer of our time lives on a mental diet of worry, doubts, and wishful thinking. While new communications outlets multiply, the professional writer, journalist and creative writer live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, saying they have no work, they can’t make themselves work, that there is no point in writing. Fifty years later, writing seems to have lost its power to move the writer or the reader, and writers languish in the corners of American society, which gladly lets them languish there. So I have come here to discuss our appalling condition.
In a sense I have come here to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And it was later agreed that among these rights was the right to a free public education that would allow the nation’s citizens to read and understand the nation’s basic documents and discover all the rights, the history and the literature they were heir to.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation to ensure public literacy and reasonable mastery of written language, America has given public education a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that every school district is too short of funds to have good schools and enough teachers to teach reading and writing. We refuse to believe that every newspaper and magazine and employer is too short of funds to pay writers what they are worth. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in those great vaults that hold plenty of money for entertainers, politicians, the insurance industry, the oil industry, the defense industry, and drug companies, none of which could function without writers to put words in their mouths or on their websites.
So we have come to cash this check -- the check that will give all citizens upon demand the education they were promised. We have also come to this hallowed spot, the printed page, to remind America that the matter is fiercely urgent. America’s schools produce masses of functional illiterates and dropouts, and their school boards tell us nothing further can be done. Some enroll in America’s colleges, in which I taught for twenty-five years, where technical, business, or athletic skills are favored over learning how to write and speak. Teachers of college composition find their students painfully unsure about their writing skills, and unable and ashamed to communicate their needs. Teachers are expected to give inflated grades to students who cannot write a coherent paragraph in their native language, students who might, if given a grade of C, try to get the teacher dismissed or start shooting.
Those who never learn to read and write well are slaves--but not to those who do read and write well, because those two almost never meet. They are slaves to those who ensure that those two will never meet by demeaning both and instilling in them contempt for one another.
Writers, this is no time to engage in the luxury of saying “Writers can’t ever make a living,” or “Only chumps pay for content,” or “People don’t read anymore,” and resign ourselves to doing something less. Now is the time to see the doors of opportunity opening to all who are gifted with writing ability, disciplined and driven to follow it as an honorable profession. Writers, it is your choice whether you write to inform, educate, inspire or entertain, but never should it be your choice to mislead. One day you must account to God or to yourself for what you did with your gift. You are fate’s finest instrument.
Writers, contradict those who say that mastery of the English language is an indulgence or a privilege or very common. It is not. Literacy is the right on which all other rights depend. The powerful of America know this, and that is why they shut their doors against you and will you not to thrive. You have heard about the power of the pen. Significantly, that phrase declines to identify the source of power as the one who holds and guides the pen. You may be poor. You may be unhappy. You might not even write very well. But you should never be deterred or ashamed or afraid to act because it might result in error. You and your fellow writers are a source of power and light, kin to Lincoln and King. Take courage during this time that literacy is low, joblessness is high, and the publishing industry is in chaos. It looks bad. Yet this is the moment to act because you can only do better.
It is fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the writer at this important juncture between printed and digital communication. The year 2012 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope writers will now be contented to blog and tweet will have a rude awakening as the nation continues business as usual. One day the hunger for knowledge and understanding, so basic to humankind, will outgrow the pleasure of passing one's time unencumbered by the thought process. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America when the pleasure of mindlessness wears off like silverplate on brass, when more Americans than in 1963 are homeless, jobless and don’t have enough to eat.
But there is something I must say to my fellow American writers who stand on the threshold peeking into the halls of power, wondering if we can market our way in. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and cynicism. Let us reject hucksterism and cheap shortcuts to "getting known" when our goal should be work of such quality that employers and readers will seek us out.
We must always conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not be lulled into passive acceptance of industry norms and the social opprobrium directed at us. Again and again we must rise and meet institutional exploitation and poor-mouthing with soul force and confidence. If we can't get published we now have cheap and free means to publish ourselves. Our marvelous new militancy must not lead us to distrust the publishing or communications industries, and academia, because many of us depend on them to make meager livings as freelancers, adjuncts, temporaries, and contract workers. It is our fault. It is our fault because we agreed to write for nothing and the next writer and the next were asked to write for nothing. We have defaulted on our own self-respect and should not be surprised that we receive little respect in return. We believe that businesses, editors, agents and institutions control our destiny. Their destiny is indeed tied up with ours. But understand that it is not we who depend on them; the truth is that they are dependent on us, and not just for manuscripts and money but for our creative ideas and our capacity to inspire.
And as we begin to walk, supporting the tottering publishing industry that was once so eager to shut us out that it refused unagented submissions or works that challenged the views of their stockholders, we must pledge to look at one another and understand that a writer is not a lone figure in an ivory tower, as that great American myth would have it, but part of a vast community growing vaster--although they call us the unknowns, the unpublished, the unemployed, the unwanted. We can never be satisfied as long as there is a talented writer too poorly educated to fulfill his or her potential, or a talented writer who thinks that survival depends on work corrosive to the spirit. Writing is our mission and our service to humanity. There is nothing wrong with it or with us. We will not be satisfied until a writer can be a writer. We will fight for the independence of literature. We will demand value for our labor. We will not be satisfied with less and will use every instrument to achieve it. We will not be bought by sponsors. We will not be embedded. We will not sell ourselves short. We will not allow ourselves and our profession to be demeaned and disparaged. We are fate’s finest instruments. We are truth's finest instruments. We are not less than those those who lie down at night saying, "Thank heaven that no one in America wrote or read the truth today."
I am not unmindful that some of you have become writers out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your dedication to truth left you persecuted and brutalized. You have weathered censorship and exile and depression and death threats. You have suffered for your creativity. All writers have been told that unearned suffering can be redemptive, a kind of honor. It is your choice to decide whether that is true and what your suffering accomplishes. The citizens of the United States of America are guaranteed freedom to write and publish, perhaps without honor, but also without retribution. We are proud of this. And we intend this day to take advantage of it, and to reclaim honor for our profession, if not for ourselves then for the writers of the future, who will have to be bolder than we were.
Writers who cannot concede a need to act should go back to scouring Writer’s Digest and attending conferences on using social media to market and promote themselves until they can admit that those petty, discomfiting tactics almost never work.
I have a dream that writers one day will not be judged not by whom they know but by what they do and how well they do it.
I have a dream that one day children will sit down together, read the same news or the same novel, and assume the freedom to assess, discuss and act on their reading and to write about it.
I have a dream that one day our news industry will be transformed into an instrument of truth and justice.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that writers will one day will not brawl for a slot on the bestseller list or on the faculty, but as colleagues will dedicate a portion of themselves to the advancement not only of their own interests but that of the whole profession.
I have a dream that American writers will one day value themselves not because they won prizes but because each writer, whether journalist, novelist, poet, letter-writer, scholar, or student performs a service to humanity, a service of perception, of a kind no one else ever born will ever give.
This is my hope. This is the faith with which I return to my writing. Have this faith and with me hew out of the mountain of despair a landmark of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform a nation and a profession in desperate need of transformation. With this faith we should study together, struggle together, support one another, stand up for our rights together, knowing we are fate’s finest instruments and our fate begins now.
Worry of the week (overheard): Won't self-publishing create more writers than readers?
Let's examine this question. Self-publishing doesn't "create writers." Self-publishing requires a text already written. Self-publishing creates authors -- writers who have their names on books. Self-publishing generates authorship.
The word "readers" in "more writers than readers" really means "readers who purchase books." There are plenty of readers. They're all reading stuff on the Internet, or at the library, or magazines, or books by their friends or faves. The real worry is, "Can publishers sell enough books to make profits?"
The question then becomes: Does the existence of more self-published authors generate less money for publishers and their authors -- less money than formerly?
Well, the vast majority of authors -- the unknowns, the rookies, the "mid-list" --could hardly make less money. But self-publishing could possibly generate more for them.
For publishers - well, you had your chance. When writers sent you these same manuscripts, you wouldn't even look at them. So they turned themselves into authors without you. They're happy. They sell their own books at least as well as you would have sold them; maybe better.
Cherry Pie Press since 2005 has published a series of poetry chapbooks by Midwestern women. They are beautifully produced and the poetry is hot and it keeps coming: Three new books this year. A friend of mine, Pamela Garvey, won a chapbook contest last year; her chapbook is titled Fear (Finishing Line Press), and each copy is threaded through with a satin rattail ribbon, different colors: mine is wine-red. Poets with traditional publishers will issue chapbooks if they've got some work that's too edgy for the suits. Ted Hughes issued 110 copies (that's all!) of a chapbook titled Howls & Whispers (1998), 11 poems from the Birthday Letters series that he, or somebody, thought were too edgy to publish in the regular book. In a rare-book room I read copy #75. Online I found a deluxe edition for sale that costs USD $27,500. Mostly, though, chapbooks are a heck of a lot more affordable than normal books of poetry, and they're mostly meat, very little gristle. A book of 20 or 30 poems that are ALL good is positively intoxicating.
I'm even urging chapbook publication on poets who have lots of good poems but not enough for a full-length manuscript, or who have full-length manuscripts they can't publish. Chapbooks can be handsomely made, even at home, and circulated and sold, mainly at poetry readings, but also through flyers, local bookstores, and the Internet.
And as far as I can see, no poet today is ever sorry that he or she issued a chapbook. Poets, consider it. And maybe it's time for some fiction or nonfiction writers to do it too.
FOLLOW UP: The faculty voted YES on Feb. 12 and plan to create an access interface by April 1.
The future will look like this, except it won't be just white, urbane, and middle-class. Where such alliances don't exist, they'll be created.
Creative Nonfiction, the magazine, has begun to suck.
I’ve subscribed to the genre’s flagship journal, Creative Nonfiction (abbreviated “CNF”), for eight years, since issue #21, and recently it’s changed its format, logo, ad policy and placement, and (here’s my beef) quality. The journal version had a dullish cover; its new format’s cover is still dullish but sized for newsstand sales. Editor Lee Gutkind (“the godfather of creative nonfiction”) and staff used to send me a semiannual so filled with thrilling essays that reading it was a kind of debauchery, and I set it aside until I could fully savor it, as if it were a box of chocolates. And I worked for the day that I would believe I’d written something good enough to send there.
Subscribe to CNF and you will receive its anthologies from time to time. In Fact (2004), was a winner I assigned to a dozen of my classes, and The Best Creative Nonfiction (2007) showcased daringly different shapes for creative nonfiction and included essays culled from other litmags such as PMS (poemmemoirstory). The Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 2 I threw away. I’m tired of reading about how lost and lonely a man feels after paying for a blowjob. The Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 3 (2009) didn’t make a lot of sense, but one of its essays, “The Face of Seung Hui Cho,” about the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre, was such a knockout that I sent its author, Wesley Yang, a fan letter.
The format change began with issue #39, and the current issue, #40, is the second of this type. CNF fills these big pages with white space, hideous illustrations, big “pull quotes,” and ads for MFA programs, but the body type is freakishly tiny (9 point? 8 point? at least one point smaller than the old type). There’s a sense of hollowness, and darn it, they’ll fill the hollow with fevered prose about breast cancer (by a famous name, but written as if she’s the first ever afflicted and the first to write about it), the winners of CNF’s daily tweet contest (#cnftweet), and, in the current issue, #40, themed “Animals,” with nothing-to-say narratives by writers with famous names describing their raccoon problems or their daughter’s pet mice, or their ditz of a spendthrift father; and a crossword puzzle. No lie! And maybe the worst: lyric essays, low on substance but done up in diva prose. That’s prose which requires the use of the word “thus.” Or Tinkerbelle prose, which requires the word “chrysalis.” Even Philip Lopate’s column, and the interview with Lauren Slater (who owes her fame to CNF) say nothing new. Thanks, Lauren, for telling the world that writers of creative nonfiction have to make stuff up. We don’t.
I’m never against change and maybe the new CNF is just getting its legs and will prosper. Hope so. Reading #39 and #40 I realized what I want: essays searing enough to shift my perceptions, esthetics, and boundaries, and my whole life. I want the “human news” the best essays deliver. I want the cutting edge of the expanding universe of creative nonfiction. I want to be spellbound by sheer excellence. I want creative nonfiction so real it makes me writhe. The editors know what I mean.