Columns > Published on July 10th, 2012

Screw Your Education: Shut Up And Write

How’s this for a story idea?

It’s three o’clock in the morning and a young man sits in the Plexiglas booth of a convenience store with his nose buried in a book. Now this isn’t a modern convenience store. It’s not the Quik-e mart where you can do all of your grocery shopping in a pinch. It’s basic; it has candy, cigarettes, coffee, and a large cooler for soda. (The store stopped selling beer a couple of years before the young man started working there because too many neighborhood kids were filching it.) It has a two bay garage attached to it and 18 gas pumps, both of which are the stations main sources of income. The store is there more or less as an after thought and the young man’s primary job is to make sure no one runs off without paying for their gas. (This has only happened once to the young man in the year he’s been working at the station and it’s something he’s a bit proud of.)

The young man is two years sober and has hair down to the middle of his back. He’s missing an eye tooth from when he decided to talk shit to the wrong drunk frat boy and hasn’t had the money to have it fixed (the meth he’d been using since before he graduated high school hasn’t helped out with the look of his choppers, either) so he rarely smiles. But the young man is happy. He’s been living with the same girl for the past three years. They don’t have much in the way of money, but things are good. She works and goes to school, and he works at the station at night, where he spends most of his time reading and taking experimental pokes at writing without the influence of speed to spur him along. The girl encourages his writing which makes him love her even more.

Now let’s switch perspectives to another young man. This young man is standing near the dumpsters at the far end of the lot where the gas station is located. He’s nervous and the panty hose he has pulled over his face is making him sweat buckets. He’s wearing the panty hose because he’s decided to rob the gas station where he just bought a pack of Newport’s ten minutes earlier. He’s decided to rob the gas station because the four bucks he bought the Newport’s with was the last of his money. He wanted to rob the gas station when he bought the cigarettes, but he was even more nervous then he is now. But now that he’s smoked a few of the cigarettes, he’s built up his nerve and he decides to move... NOW!

The young man marches towards the entrance of the gas station. He has a revolver tucked into the waistband of his loose fitting pants and he keeps his right hand on it out of fear that it will slip down into his crotch when he needs it most. The young man is so focused he doesn’t notice another man approaching the gas station. This new man is short, slightly overweight, and has a stack of books tucked under his arm for the young man in the gas station. The overweight man enters the gas station ten seconds after the young man with the gun, who’s struggling with pulling the gun from his pants. The young man from the gas station has yet to notice either of the men because he’s trying to figure out what the fuck is going on in Finnegan’s Wake. He only notices them when the overweight man shouts:

“What the fuck are you doing?”

The young man with the gun is so frightened he turns on his heel, pushes past the overweight man, and runs out into the night.

Yeah, I know, kind of anticlimactic.

But the thing is this actually happened.

The guy behind the cash register balls deep into Finnegan’s Wake was me. The fat guy with the stack of books was my best friend at the time, Mike, and the kid with the gun was just a kid with a gun. (By the way, the kid with the gun came back the next night and robbed the store. Thankfully it was my night off.)

You’re probably asking yourself, why the hell did you write this? (And at this point you’re probably wondering why you just bothered reading it?)  What’s the point I’m driving at?

Well, first off, when this happened I was 25-years-old, and at this point in my life (at least the life I’d planned for myself when I was still in high school) I should’ve been pursuing my MFA, or at the very least finishing up my bachelors and getting ready for graduate school. Neither one of those things happened, largely because I’d started reading guys like Hemingway and Kerouac and I got it into my thick head that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to be experiencing life and not sitting in some classroom.

Yeah, I was a fucking dope for thinking this, but when you’re eighteen and broke, the idea of having to spend another four years in a shit-ass desert town busting your ass at some go nowhere job at night while sitting in a classroom during the day holds zero appeal.

So I went the Hemingway/Kerouac route and got a job at the Grand Canyon bussing tables. Needless to say, it was a shit job, but it was a shit job where you got four months off and if you used your money right (which was pretty easy to do considering that you spent the bulk of the year in the middle of nowhere) you wouldn’t have to work during those off months and you could do pretty much anything you wanted to do, which I did.

Now I’ll save all the details of the Grand Canyon-to-the gas station and I’ll just give you a highlight reel:

  • During my time at the Canyon, I traveled across the country twice, mostly on a Greyhound, but I also did my fair share of driving and hitchhiking.
  • I quit my job at the Canyon, moved to Flagstaff with the intention of finally going to school, but all I really managed to do was party too much, which led to stints of homelessness, addiction, and other stupidities too embarrassing to mention. I also did a bunch more traveling, including some pretty amazing trips to New Orleans, Seattle, and Denver.
  • I left Flagstaff after nearly three years and moved to Phoenix with a bunch of hippies. The hippies made their living as a band called Laughing Stalk and we all lived in a rented farmhouse out in a dumpy desert town which reminded me way too much of my hometown. But we had a lot fun at that house, and I managed to get myself clean for the first time in five years, and meet the future Mrs. Rawson. (Yeah, she’s the young woman at the beginning of this thing.)
  • The future Mrs. Rawson and I spent our first summer together traveling across the country in her old Honda Accord and came back to Phoenix half starved and covered in mosquito bites (we spent the bulk of the trip camping) and having to figure out how to make a living, thus the gas station.

My life and the life I built afterward was, and is, amazing, and there’s a point I’m trying to make with all this, I think, and the point is, did it/does it really matter that I skipped out on a higher education?

When I read Rob Hart’s column, Seriously Though, Do I Really Need An MFA? it got me thinking about the importance of an education, or in my case, the lack of an education, and whether—at least in the terms of being a writer—having a formal education really matters? Does it give you a leg up when it comes to your overall skill as a storyteller? Does it give you an advantage as far as the path to publication is concerned? I know having an education gives you an advantage as far as finding a decent job, (in my case, I’ve been lucky as far as finding and having decent jobs) but for the most part—and because I really don’t have any first hand knowledge of the academic world—I’d have to say no, it doesn’t matter, because whether I pursued my bachelor’s and then my MFA, I think it would’ve eventually led to the same end: Me, sitting in front of a computer or with a notebook, in my office, listening to my wife and daughter argue (albeit it would probably be another wife and daughter arguing) about what to have for breakfast, and creating imaginary worlds. The only real difference, I think, is I would be teaching instead of working in the private sector, and I’ve got to admit, having three months off every year to do nothing but write seems pretty sweet.

I’d like to wrap things up with a quote from my friend Kyle Minor, who posted this to his Facebook page: (Yeah, don’t give me any shit about quoting a Facebook status, but I think it sums things up pretty well)

Was thinking tonight about how all the good and life-changing education happened when I willingly got in over my head: the summer I lived in a van, the choice to quit my first real job without a safety net, the choice to go to grad school underprepared, the choice to go to Haiti the first time, the day I interviewed Lawrence Weschler without being quite smart or well-read enough yet to go toe-to-toe with him, the 25-city book tour on a $1000 budget, the ten days in Europe with Bart Skarzynski. You have to do things in life that other people say you shouldn't do, and that you are scared to do, and you have to find a way to make them happen, because no one else will do it for you. You have to will yourself the life you want, and be prepared to make the sacrifices required to make it happen.

I think that sums up both life and the writing life perfectly, because no matter what path you take, it’s good to get in over your head, it’s good to take chances when everyone in your life is telling you you can’t.

And my real point, the thing that took me nearly two thousand words to get around to telling you:

Go to school or don’t go to school, because one way or another, you’re going to receive an education, but first and foremost, just shut up and write, and the rest will take care of its self.

About the author

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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