Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a writer. What does it mean to be a good writer?
Can anyone do it, or is it something that should only be attempted by trained professionals?
I’ve been thinking about this after hearing a new term: outsider artist. An outsider artist is someone who did not get any formal academic training about being an artist. They’re totally self-taught, they picked things up by trial and error, or by asking other artists, but they didn’t pursue a four year art degree to learn all of the different schools and styles, techniques and tricks.
In some circles, outsider art — Art Brut, French for “raw art” — is a label given with some disdain. It’s said with a slight sneer, like the person who said it just got a whiff of something you stepped in. The outsider artist is not in that special circle. They’re excluded from polite society, and are looked down on, or talked about behind their backs. They are outside the circles of culture, acceptability, and the success that a $10,000+ a year tuition brings.
In other circles, being an outsider artist is a badge of honor. They’re the rebels, the artists from the wrong sides of the tracks. Many outsider artists are not discovered until after their death, if they’re ever discovered at all.
I’m an outsider writer. (A term I’m not fond of, mostly because the rhyming makes it sound silly.)
I was not formally trained as a writer, at least not four years’ worth. I took the required English comp class, a couple journalism classes, and wrote for my college newspaper. My writing skills are completely self-taught, sharpened over the last 23 years.
Does this make me less of a writer? Am I somehow outside the mainstream because I didn’t get the creative writing degree, or the Master of Fine Arts (MFA)?
I’ve met some of these MFAs and creative writers. Most of them are fine people who have skills I’m envious of. Some of these insider writers are not as good as they believe. Some of them just plain suck. And some of them are snobbish, arrogant, and. . .well, let’s just say I came up with a different meaning for “MFA.”
I’m often torn in my views on writing: on one hand, it’s an art form that should only be practiced professionally by people who have a mastery of the language, and can create compelling sentences and stories. Their work shouldn’t be clumsily manhandled by non-writers who claim to be “editing” it.
On the other hand, writing is egalitarian: anyone can be a writer. It’s something we were all taught to do throughout school and college. It’s something that even a person with a high school education can excel at.
Most days, I fall into the egalitarian camp. Anyone can be a writer. You just need the desire, determination, some basic skills, and a pen. From there, you can be any kind of writer you want. Who am I to say whether you’re “good enough,” or shouldn’t enjoy every apple of success you can grab? I’m the outsider, remember?
I’m an outsider writer, but I’ve claimed the awards and accolades the properly-trained writers should have gotten. You have to wonder just how good all their training is when a stone-cold noobie can make a bigger impact with one piece than the people who spent several years of their life preparing for.
I’m an outsider writer, and I wear that badge, that literary leather jacket, with pride. I’ve scratched and struggled for every success I’ve gotten, and I earned every one of my scars. I’ve spent the last 20+ years, studying, reading, practicing, and honing. I’ve been rejected by some of the best and the worst in the business. I like my outsider writer status. It suits me, and I wear it better than a lot of the insiders wear theirs.
Please note: I am not saying I can outwrite any MFA or creative writer. I’m not some Wyatt Earp wordsmith. Far from it. I have several friends who are trained writers, and frankly, they can kick my ass, and I gape open-mouthed at their ability to string words together. But I offer this idea of the successful Outsider Writer to anyone who has an urge to write, but thought that a lack of training or education should hold them back.
Are you an outsider or trained writer? Did you get an education in creative writing, or did you just figure it out as you went along? Are you better off or worse off for your choice? And do you wish you could do it any differently, if you had the chance?