Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Accurate, but unsystematic”: a writer’s education

with 5 comments

What does a writer need to know? If you’re a novelist, the answer is: almost everything. One of the most daunting things about writing a novel is the amount of information it needs to contain, at least in order to meet the standards of contemporary realism—architectural details, descriptions of weather and clothing, mundane details about jobs and lifestyles that the writer will rarely know firsthand, and just the names of countless things, both unusual and commonplace. And all of this is merely background noise compared to the difficult work of constructing believable characters and relationships, not to mention the education and experience required to write clear, accessible, descriptive prose.

So how is a writer supposed to learn all this? Certainly not by going to class. It’s acquired, rather, by writing a lot, which is to say endlessly, and by engaging the world for years through the peculiar lens of fiction, in which everything is potential material, and experiences accrue in the form of words and ideas rather than merely piling up over time. It’s also acquired by talking to a wide variety of people, reading good books, and especially by exposing oneself to as many different kinds of art as possible. And as writers love to point out, none of this can be easily taught. A writer’s mind is always going to be a product of countless misguided experiments, to the point where one wonders if it might be easier, as Mamet suggests, just to skip school altogether and head straight for the starving artist stage.

And yet it’s also true that the best, most convenient place for getting much of this necessary experience is a university town. Cardinal Newman said it best:

You cannot have the best of every kind of knowledge everywhere; you must go to some great city or emporium for it…It is the place to which a thousand schools make contributions; in which the intellect may safely range and speculate, sure to find its equal in some antagonist activity, and its judge in the tribunal of truth.

Which is to say that not every writer needs to go to college, but that he or she probably needs to go near a college.

When I think about my own education, I’m reminded of the phrase that Watson used to describe Holmes’s knowledge of anatomy: “Accurate, but unsystematic.” I went to a good school, but had trouble deciding on a major, and ended up in Classics largely because it promised to give me a little of everything—art, history, literature, philosophy, linguistics, poetics, philology, archaeology, comparative religion, all built on the foundations of two difficult languages. Looking back, I’m not quite sure what it gave me, aside from a Latinate regard for grammar that hasn’t always been to my advantage. And partly as a result of my own personality, I’ve ended knowing something about a lot of things, but nothing in depth.

And yet I don’t think I’d change any of my educational choices—unless it were to make them less systematic. In college, I met a lot of interesting people, cultivated habits of thought that have served me fairly well, and made some productive mistakes. And it’s the mistakes that have been the most fruitful. I think there’s something to be said for screwing up repeatedly in your twenties, and if anything, I was too careful. Part of me wishes I’d started writing seriously right after college, rather than looking for a real job. If that were the case, I might still be sleeping on an air mattress in Queens, but I’d probably be a better writer than I am now. As Proust points out, it’s hard to acquire wisdom without making mistakes. And in the end, in order to be really useful, a writer’s education needs to be a bit of a mess.

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2011 at 9:04 am

5 Responses

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  1. Well said! I just read a biography of Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect, and his life illustrates your point perfectly. His early years were a mess, trotting from one school to the next, but he became well-versed in many things and developed his own point of view, which led him to revolutionizing parks in America.


    March 23, 2011 at 9:29 am

  2. Very interesting, Alec. It often seems that one of the major trends in nonfiction, especially with the decline in newspapers, is away from the generalist reporter and more toward the specialist/academic with a good editor. That’s a worrying trend for a generalist reporter, and it makes it easy to think with nostalgia of the opportunities for broadly educated people like Olmsted. (Or his contemporary, the optometrist-writer-sportsman Conan Doyle!)


    March 23, 2011 at 11:43 am

  3. @Laura: That’s a good example! I don’t know much about Olmstead, but he sounds fascinating…

    @Eric: I agree that we need more good generalist reporters—it’s always fascinating to watch a trusted voice engage a wide range of subjects. That said, it’s also true that the best generalists are really just serial specialists. (Being a generalist all the time doesn’t often lead to much, except in Trivial Pursuit.)


    March 23, 2011 at 2:01 pm

  4. Ha. I’m going to change my business card to “serial specialist.”


    March 23, 2011 at 8:15 pm

  5. The specialist/generalist divide is really interesting. That’s perhaps why I love community newspapers–everyone has to cover whatever lands on the desk. Olmstead did a little of everything but kept coming back to the land. The biography I read was A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybczynski, who looked at how Olmstead’s visions shaped America’s public spaces.


    March 24, 2011 at 10:58 am

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