Our advice columnist: 'No, kids, don't become writers'

Chris Erskine's firsthand advice to college writing students: Don't become writers

I remind my editor that I have almost 2,000 more Twitter followers than William Faulkner ever did and am equally ahead of Dickens and Shakespeare when it comes to Facebook. Posthumously, which is always the way most writers are ever appreciated, I hope that there's sort of a revisionist consensus: "That man sure could social media!"

More and more, I use nouns as verbs and verbs as toothpicks. I'd use more gerunds but am never completely sure what a gerund is. Sort of vagrant verb, perhaps? An action word with a sassy suffix?

In grade school, the only kids who could diagram a sentence were the same ones who were good at math and couldn't write a lick. I think writing is like comedy or kissing; you can't dissect it too much.

Similarly, it's a consensus among those who never made it into really great schools that, for the most part, the Yale kids can't write and the Harvard grads are even worse. My buddy Mehlman, who went to Maryland and can write circles around circles, is the best proponent of this.

Sure, Fitzgerald attended Princeton and Updike graduated summa cum laude from Harvard. All I can think is how much better they would've been if they'd attended Southwest Missouri State.

They could've maybe had a career.

So, as teens and twentysomethings reach out for career advice, I always tell them not to become writers. Just don't. Your success hinges on anti-achievement, cheekiness and a résumé of frustration. Generally, writing is too much fun and provides far too little money. Suddenly, you'll find you've hooked up to a voodoo you'll never fully fathom.

No, kids, don't become writers. It's a snide profession, worse maybe than law or medicine. You'll mostly work from home, since no place besides taverns and jails will have you.

And just when you put the distractions of home and family aside and finally find yourself "in the zone," the washing machine hits "FINAL SPIN" and the entire house begins to quiver and shake. It's as if "The Twilight Zone" married Dr. Seuss.

In our case, even the mailbox at the end of the driveway trembles. Little pieces of mortar crumble loose from the chimney and roll down to clog the gutters. The bolts that snug the foundation to the floor joists twist free.

There's an unsettling message/metaphor there: "Write faster, make more money, so you can fix this silly, stupid, too-small house, gasping for its final breath."

But writing isn't really about money, or housing or paying the gardener. If you're a writer, you probably will never make enough to afford a gardener. If you're a writer, your gardener probably brings home more than you do.

What is writing about then, Mr. Erskine?

Well, dear student, writing is about retaining whatever sanity you have left by putting down your semi-thoughts, neuroses and impulses in some sort of descending order. It's like filling your own prescription. Yet it also needs a beginning, middle and end. And it requires enormous honesty, in a world more comfortable with greed and false fronts.

The way God creates snowflakes, that's the way you'll create stories. Sometimes it goes well; more often, not.

As mentor to millennials, I spoke to some writing students the other day, and between yawns and eye rolls, I think they really got a lot out of it. In person, and even on the page, I have this Jonah Hill demeanor, the sort of guy who wears sweaters in too-warm weather to hide a little extra girth, or puts on glasses just because I could never find a doorway without them.

If that didn't scare them off writing, what will?

"Just remember," I told the college kids, "I have 2,000 more Twitter followers than that hack James Joyce."

This really got their attention, so I told the students that you write because you have to, because nothing else will suffice. Being a writer is great work if you can make a living at it, which you probably can't.

I'm always pointing aspiring writers to Greek mythology, so much more creative, poignant and raw than anything Hollywood studios produce anymore, in love as they are with the dark impulses of horny 15-year-olds. Give me the dark impulses of jaded and horny old Greeks any time.

The ancient Greeks, as you know, invented everything except Twitter — Democracy, marathons, irony.

And the very concept of love itself. Now, go build a few snowflakes.


Twitter: @erskinetimes

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