Student has chopped lots of wood and carried lots of wood, but is no closer to Enlightenment. He still just wants to write science fiction novels, but his elders and betters are recommending seemingly everything except that. In fact, they are recommending short stories of a literary sort, and literary writers, and all in all they’re recommending an approach that the student does not like and is inclined to rubbish.
The student does not understand that he is the problem in this picture.
He has grown up reading pulp science fiction. He has grown up reading books and stories where writing quality is less important than plot, than having things move along, than having science and technological elements feature strongly. And he has bought into an argumemt that says this is all somehow superior, or preferable, to this more literary or contemporary fiction
Once, the student was a boy of tender years, just 11, who burned with the adult ambition of writing, and writing a novel in particular. He didn’t want slowly to work up to it over a period of much labour and experience. He was already 11, after all. Life was passing him by. He needed to be a published novelist by no later than 12 years old.
The student lived at the monastery, working towards Enlightenment like the other students. And like the other students, he was expected to chop wood and carry water. These were essential tasks around the monastery that kept the monastery functioning, and young men were stronger than old men, who chopped and carried their share in their day.
Inevitably, though, a student would ask the Master why he had to carry water and chop wood every day when he wanted to wait for Enlightenment. The Master explained that these were essential tasks. The student asked what would happen once he achieved Enlightenment. “Chop wood. Carry water.” The monastery must continue.
Now, many years later, the 11-year-old student who so burned to write novels, who did not fully understand how chopping wood and carrying water could be seen as metaphors for his entire writing practice, or indeed how they could be seen as metaphors for all of life itself, was headed for a university to study creative writing. There, he believed, he would learn how to write novels.
The university was run as an adjunct to the monastery. There was a lot of wood and a lot of water.
The student set off to the groves of academe. He packed his best monastic robes, and his best pulp sf magazines, which were his holy texts. These magazines he read and re-read every chance he got. Everything he knew about good writing he had learned from magazines and books like these. The student would have engraved these stories on tablets of polished gold had he the financial resources to do so.
Then one evening was the first Creative Writing class, with a new Master. The student was keen, as always, to make a great impression with a new Master. The better first impression you can make, the sooner you can reach Enlightenment.
The student had been chasing this Enlightenment thing now all his life. He knew nothing about it. It was hazy. Nobody had an answer about it that agreed with anybody else’s answer. It was seen as a wholly good thing, a sort of metaphysical, psychic, spiritual Christmas of the soul, perhaps, but it was also unattainable, and unsustainable. You could spend your life searching and never find it, except possibly in your last breath as it rattles out of your body, an unkind irony.
The new Master was a man with keen, sharp, penetrating eyes who could see things in his students. He understood things. His eyes could see around corners. They could see during fog advisories. They could see at night. And they could see at times when it was most inconvenient to you.
He could see, when the student handed in his first assignment, without even looking at it, “Spaceships and aliens, galaxy in flames, only one plucky female officer can save the day?”
“Yes, that’s it exactly,” the student said, smiling, a little too keen, but just so relieved that the Master could see his work so clearly. That he understood him.
“This class is for Creative Writing, though,” the Master went on. “Stories like this are okay, but are not what we’re looking for at this time. Do you understand? We’re looking for social realism, or mainstream. There’s not much call for spaceships, sadly. Personally, if it were me, I think there should be spaceships as a motif in all stories, even if just in the background, but there.“ He looked up at the student and he had a sort of imploring gaze. He wanted the young man to understand something important here.
“I love spaceships. I love them so much. I love them more than breath.”
“Yes,” but people want to read about people. The two greatest themes in writing are love and death. You can’t go wrong with those.“
The student was twenty years old. He had been chopping wood and carrying water all his life, but had never learned why. He had never learned more than that it was chore. He’d never embraced the experience. He had never gone up a level.
He was still, fundamentally, 11 years old, and burning to write novels without wanting to the work. And the work here was listening to his elders and betters, again. The student looked to his cheaply printed stacks of pulp adventure yarns packed full of the dreadful prose and ham-fisted plotting that made such stories go–and saw pure gold. The Master saw cheap raw thrills, but nothing that would last. He saw snack writing. But what he desperately wanted was writing that would become immortal, that would live on beyond us all, and people yet unborn would thrill to the resonant ideas and prose that affected us, too.
This is what the Master wants. Is there enough water and wood in the whole world? Is there a way for the Master to persuade the student that in clinging to his pulpy heroes, in denigrating the classics of literature, he’s behaving as a snob, a boor, or worse? I’ve heard people say truly horrifying things about literary fiction. I understand that you might have a preference for one over the other–that’s fine. But also accept that when an experienced tutor or professor is recommending work, he or she believes it’s worth your time. I had tutors at uni, and I mocked their reading suggestions, because there was no science fiction. It was an outrage! If I couldn’t have my science fiction I was taking my ball and going home.
God, but I was SUCH a prick!
All I had to do was do the reading. It would have helped. I would have chopped wood and carried water. I would have helped the monastery, and I would have gained some insight and humility points, which are so valuable for a novelist. But at the time, sadly, 1983 me knew better, and was an arsehole with it. I’m so sorry.