Screw Your Education: Shut Up And Write

22 comments

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.

Keith Rawson

Column by Keith Rawson

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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Comments

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs July 10, 2012 - 11:36am

I got a lot more writing done when I was working overnights at a gas station compared to when I was getting an MFA.

Craig Clevenger's picture
Craig Clevenger from Joshua Tree, CA July 10, 2012 - 11:37am

Spot on. You've lead an enviable life, Mr. Rawson.

Ang El R's picture
Ang El R July 10, 2012 - 12:00pm

This article hits the nail on the head. Ive often flipped to an About the Author page and found nothing but a list of credentials, and wondered if that is really all that matters to be considered a proffesional author. I decided otherwise when I got published, and remain ,exculsively , an eager student of The School of Life. Thanks for the article Keith. p.s. I reside in Flagstaff (temporarily) and also find it to be a well of inspiration. Currently trying NOT to party to hard and run off with a band of hippies. LOL

 

Larry Nocella's picture
Larry Nocella from USA is reading Loser's Memorial by Larry Nocella July 10, 2012 - 12:11pm

I hope I'm allowed to say FUCKING A on LitReactor, because that's the only reaction I've got here.

I'm a proud college dropout. When I attended university, I naively thought I'd meet people genuinely interested in furthering their minds, and what I found (at two colleges) was a bunch of assholes who thought getting drunk was the height of experience. That's a generalization of course - I did meet some cool folks, but overall, I was unimpressed. Getting drunk is okay, but all the time, every day, doing nothing else? No.

My pop always says, "We should have sent you to college for writing." I'm glad they didn't. Run thru the santizing and conforming filter of academia, my desire to write computer games, to study music and to work in the theater all died. Meanwhile, my desire to write turned feral. I remain free of any degree other than a high school diploma.

Well said, Mr. Rawson. Thank you and stay wild, my friend.

 

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones July 10, 2012 - 1:54pm

@Bradley - I've heard that from more than a few people.

@Craig - Thank you, sir.

@Ang - Best of luck to you. BTW, the only inspiration I received in Flag was a serious ass whooping and an overwhelming desire to leave it and never comeback. And those hippies in many ways saved my life.

lspieller's picture
lspieller from Los Angeles is reading LEVIATHAN July 10, 2012 - 12:20pm

I know I'm going to stick out like a sore thumb here, but I have a BA and an MA, and I believe those degrees have made me a better reader, which is turn has made me a better writer.

That being said, I also live a life....

Ray Richards's picture
Ray Richards from Michigan and Iowa is reading The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson July 10, 2012 - 12:23pm

I keep thinking, "I should stpr reading this and write."

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones July 10, 2012 - 12:32pm

@Larry - Glad you enjoyed, man.

@lspieller - I'm by no means arguing against an education. It does sharpen your skills as both a reader and as a writer, and you should be proud of your accomplishments.

donlafferty's picture
donlafferty July 10, 2012 - 12:38pm

I bailed on college freshman year after I accidentally burnt my parents house down. But that was three years after ON THE ROAD had fucked my head up, and six years after I ran away from home - the first time.

I joined the military figuring I'd let Uncle Sam do whatever he wanted with me and enjoy the shit out of everything along the way. And it was awesome beyond my wildest hopes, despite the douchenozzles I had to put up with.

But education has it's value. The moderated discussion of ideas that go along with plowing through classic literature helps to inform and lay a foundation for new ideas to sprout, but is by no means a prerequisite to writing.

Reading is, though, and no matter how educated somebody is, it's hard to write if you're not reading.

.'s picture
. July 10, 2012 - 12:58pm

I agree with this article. 

Everytime I tell someone about my newest accomplishment in the writing world, I'm always cut off with "So when does college start?" or "Thats nice." 

Still I wouldn't mind having an MFA but it's in no way needed

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer July 10, 2012 - 1:17pm

I don't think an education is needed, but I think it can help. Sure, there is no shortage of writers who did it without an education, but there are also educated writers. There are even famous writers who graduated with MFA's.

There is no particular way to become a writer. Just as there isn't a right or wrong process to writing, as long as it is effective. Robin Cook's medical education obviously helped his writing. Michael Crichton went to Harvard. John Grisham had a Juris Doctor. All three made very good livings off writing fiction about things they learned in college.

Writers, by nature, enjoy research and analysis. Essentially, that is what writing is. That same skillset is employed in higher education. Degrees naturally attract writers.

What an MFA is really about is immersing yourself in writing and being around other writers. You can do all of that without it, or you can do it with it. If you want to take a shot at being a professor, you are going to have to have the degree. If you just want to do nothing but write, you probably don't need it.

I degree may help you, it may not help you. I seriously doubt it will hurt you, despite what some people will say. Writing is about reading and writing. College, unless you party yourself out, is about reading and writing. It seems logical.

James Nance's picture
James Nance from Austin, Texas is reading This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald July 10, 2012 - 1:40pm

It's good to read words of encouragement like this, because I'm packing up from Texas and moving to NYC in about 2 months and I feel like this is the kick in the ass my writing needs to get off the ground and relevant in my life again. I'm a veteran and I have a BA in English but there's still so much life I haven't seen or figured out and I hope this new experience will help me put some of it on paper (or word document) and I can get really creative again.

GG_Silverman's picture
GG_Silverman from Seattle July 10, 2012 - 2:24pm

Great story, thanks for sharing! The best part, though, "Just shut up and write." YES!

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading NOS4A2 July 10, 2012 - 2:26pm

If you don't mind, I'm just going to leave this quote from Good Will Hunting here for all of us:

One day you're going to start doing some thinking of your own and you're going to come to two realizations. One; don't do that. And, two, you dropped a hundred and fifty thousand on an over priced education that you could have gotten for a buck fifty in late fees from the public library.

Some days, I think I paid too much for my overpriced education. But, I wouldn't change it because it made me who I am today.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones July 10, 2012 - 3:37pm

I wanted to share a comment Robert Ward (author of Red Baker, Four Kinds of Rain, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice and too many feature articles in Rolling Stone to count.) left on my FB page which I think cuts to the quick:

The most important thing is to read everything that's good, and to get out and ask people about their lives, either as a journalist or just as an independent writer. Very few writers can just sit at home and make stuff up for very long. If you want to write about jet pilots you gotta go ask a jet pilot, cops ,ask cops...doctors...etc. You don't need a college degree to do this, but you do need to ask the right questions. That's why, for a young writer, being a journalist is an invaluable experience, Ala Hemingway, Steinbeck, Crane and many others.

addtheliquid's picture
addtheliquid from Austin, Texas is reading Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc July 10, 2012 - 6:47pm

I loved this! I've lived life on the edge for longer than I thought I would. Met someone who assaulted my intelligence and told me that I wasn't smart enough to write. He's mentally ill anyway. I've had times where I've been up and down with my education, but now I'm seeing more of the positives about it. This article helps!

FoxyLenz's picture
FoxyLenz from Shangri -L.I is reading Mists of Avalon July 10, 2012 - 7:06pm

Education is important to everyone, formal education is only helpfull if you want to work with in the constructs of society, but where is the fun in that?

I was always an avid reader, interested in science, history and the arts, but never did well in school. College was no different, it just wasted a lot of time, money and dignity. 

College is a good place to learn from other people's life experience. A lesson learned in the classroom is a lot less painful than a lesson learned tied to the bed of a coke dealer named Tommy (unless maybe the classroom was on fire, or had desks made out of nails...), but lots of us are thick headed and pain is probably the most effective teacher. 

It's a lot of hard work getting a degree, I respect those who have them. A degree does not determine intelligence, talent nor ability to function in the real world. 

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David July 10, 2012 - 7:53pm

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.

 

I agree with this 100%.

I returned to school at the age of 46 because my writing sucked. I love writing, but formal training ended when I was 15. I discovered I was good at science, and I'm not working toward a Marine Geology degree.

I write because I love to write. Now I write better, and I have been exposed to classic literature I'd never had read otherwise. 

I see no reason why I can't be a marine geologist who writes odd ball stories.

underpurplemoon's picture
underpurplemoon from PDX July 11, 2012 - 9:13am

FoxyLenz, I totally agree with everything you say! If I could have just starting writing instead of going to college, I would have saved myself a lot of money and grief!

twinkletoes3106's picture
twinkletoes3106 from Phoenix, AZ is reading The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall July 11, 2012 - 9:24am

I'm a little torn on this one. I do hold a BA in English and Creative Writing, and I have to say that my education developed my writing to a great extent and also gave me an opportunity to absorb a lot of books that I otherwise wouldn't have. But on the other hand, experience is key. Leading a life of adventure and danger and taking risks is where the real learning takes place creatively. I used to think I'd need an MFA to be successful, but now I know that's not true. I'd rather go to Greece with the money I'd save, character scout, and write like crazy. :)

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies July 12, 2012 - 8:42pm

my first response was "Amen, brother." shut up and write. and for many people reading whatever they like, they can learn a great deal. but for a lot of other authors, they need that additional education, and whether it's a BA or an MFA, it can teach you a lot. i do have my MFA now, but i was also a voracious reader all my life.

i think the point you're making is go to the school of hard knocks or a fine university, but whichever road you take, quit bitching about it all and write your ass off. 

or something like that. :-)

great column.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones July 12, 2012 - 9:42pm

@Richard - Right on the head, sir.