Thursday, February 17, 2011

What Intellectuals Know, and Don't Know, and How It Relates to Writing


image from wikipedia
As part of my membership in The Internet Writing Workshop I enjoy a weekly discussion about the art of creative nonfiction.

This week a segment of the discussion was devoted to the idea that people who have a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing are more likely to get published even if their material often ranges toward the prosaic.

I suppose someone who has earned a MFA is an intellectual. I once read the difference between the average person and the average intellectual is that the intellectual talks about ideas and the average person talks about people and possessions.

This writer we were discussing was a member of the MFA union, but his piece edged toward being patronizing: the intellectual observing the locals. I thought the piece was mundane, nothing (were I an editor) that I would have set aside for special consideration.

What intrigued me is that one member of the group, a multi-published writer, is a native of the area which provided the setting for the essay, and he pointed out a significant factual mistake, one that automatically made the essayist's assumptions about other things -- the people he met and described? -- less than trustworthy.

I suppose we all risk that sort of thing when we write about things seen but not fully understood. I see it when people write about the Ozarks, or more generally rural life.

I now live within 15 miles of a little town called Buffalo. A good while back, there was an article about Buffalo being the roughest, toughest town in all of Missouri, an article written by a young writer from a trendy east coast magazine.

To the point: the writer stopped in a bar and came away with that perception, but Buffalo is far from that. It is a typical small town, with a Baptist church, an Assembly of God church, a dentist who advertises his work in big city venues, a hospital clinic, and the assorted array of fast food establishments along the four-lane US Highway 65.

So, this is what I learned from this week's discussion on creative nonfiction, lessons that you may take to heart, or not.
  1. know your stuff 
  2. don't patronize 
  3. don't think language can disguise lack of intellectual depth 
  4. an ironic self-perception, a bit of self-deprecation can be appealing, and the lack thereof can be off-putting 
  5. get busy and order a MFA from one of those online-pay-for-paper "universities."
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