I am the greatest writer in the world–in the vision of myself that I’ve carried around in my head since I was a boy, at least. I’ve written 20 or more books full of creative writing. There they sit, on the shelf over there in the bedroom. You might well ask why, if I have been so dedicated about writing for myself, I’ve never tried to share my words with others. Well, I did.
When I first graduated from high school, I enrolled in Columbia College in downtown Chicago, to take creative writing classes in their well-known Story Workshop program. I remember being terrified from the moment the bus onto Michigan Avenue to the moment class was over and I trudged back down Ohio Street through the cold winter wind called The Hawk to take the same bus back home. I ate nothing, I was ready to throw up at any moment, and I loved every minute of it.
When I got to class, the students were all older than I was. Many wrote for local magazines as freelancers. They were taking this clsss as a lark, so they could practice the “New Journalism” of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. I, of course, was there in preparation for the Great American Novel I was destined to produce.
We sat in a tiny circle no more than an arm’s length from one another. The teacher, Paul Pekin, who looked like a grizzled gold prospector heading down to the river with his pan to search for treasure, in a red flannel shirt and baggy jeans, with long sideburns and a droopy moustache, looked around the room to silence the chatter. He uttered just four harmless-sounding but terrifying words: “Give me a word.” A new wave of nausea shuddered through my entrails. Each of us said a word that was supposed to come to one’s mind on the spur of the moment, from the depths of the imagination, inspired by the words just uttered previously.
I, of course, planned my words out beforehand, even writing them down on the bus beforehand. I made an effort to pull great words from my personal dictionary like a miner panning for nuggets of gold. I uttered impressive words like cornucopia that had nothing to do with the imagination. Then we moved to images, and finally, we wrote for the rest of the hour, our pens moving in unison, traffic moving by outside, the sounds of the city far below. Then we would read from what we wrote. I remember creating what I thought was a dramatic story about a man who went to a gas station and was executed by a man in the bathroom for no apparent reason. Such a thing had never occurred to me, but it was the most dramatic event I could imagine. “That story was intense,” one long-haired slacker dude told me after class.
Why did I decide to leave that school and get a traditional degree from the bigger and better-known University of Illinois at Chicago? Why did I feel I had to get a “real” job? I thought studying English literature would make me a better writer. In truth, it killed whatever confidence I had and made me feel absolutely unable to write anything of substance for many years.
I slogged through theory clases where we attempted to understand the blatherings of Jacques Derrida, discussing terms like hermeneutics and the terrible word deconstruction, a word that sends a shiver down my spine to this very day. It’s the single most boring and thought-deadening term ever created. We studied Dickens, and Shakespeare, and Joyce, and we were told that no one could reach the heights of that pantheon of literary giants, especially not us. I learned that the greatest accomplishment of a writer was not self-expression or the depiction of his or her time but to become an object of minute examination by scholars who cranked out studies exploring every theory or nuance they could event. I was taught that the scholarly study was the most important priority, not the creation of art itself.
I did go to a writing class. I thought that here I might be able to share my experiences with the Rootweavers, to test how such events might be perceived in the “real” world. Our teacher (whom I will simply call Gonzo because he is apparently still on the faculty, lo these many years later) was in love with “experimental” fiction. He came to class in a long black leather coat that stretched almost to the floor, and a black leather hat, a pint-sized Wyatt Earp. He slammed his books down on the table and we snapped to attention. “I want you to forget everything you’ve learned about plot and character and rising action and falling action!” he yelled. “I just want you to write! Let it flow! Open a vein and let it flow down your arm and let the blood of your words flow onto the pen! I want moments! I want images! I want fresh, now, tomorrow! I don’t care if it makes any sense, I just want it to be alive. Go–write!” He plopped himself in his chair and stared at us. That was his idea of teaching.
When it came time to share our bloody moments and images I timidly spoke: “My best friends are a society of little people who live beneath the earth,” I began. You could practically hear the sighs, feel the air go out of the room.