“Dear SPB, I saw an article on the Internet about you going back to college. Good for you, I think that is wonderful and I’m proud to have an African American man like you make news for doing that. I’m writing because I need some advice to give my 17-year-old son, who wants to be a writer like you. I gave him your book HUNG to read and he loved it. He is going to college next year and is trying to decide what to major in to be a writer. His college offers writing courses and a major but there’s a debate in our house. His father believes he should major in something practical and practice his writing on the side while I think he should be a writing major and pursue it fully. What do you think?”
Well, first of all, I’m hoping your son is not completely corrupted by reading HUNG at such a tender age. That said, thanks for buying the book and passing it on. Regarding your son: writing is a hard profession, as you can imagine. I wish I knew what kind of writing he wanted to do so I could give you more specific advice. But I’ll try. Many colleges allow students to double-major, I believe. Perhaps he can double major in Creative Writing alongside something more “practical”? That way he’ll get the basics of writing under his belt and still get a full education that might allow him to get a “real job”–which he will probably need to pay the rent and bills until writing can do that for him–once he graduates. I actually concentrated in American Studies in college–not necessarily practical, no, but I liked that it informed my writing and didn’t have writing as it’s core discipline. I don’t think American Studies helped me get my first job as a writer but it did give me the discipline to pursue the jobs that I wanted. In other words, whatever your son majors in, once he gets out into the world, pounding the pavement for writing assignments (or, um, jobs?) he’ll need perserverance, a strong sense of himself and his abilities, and a thick skin more than any particular degree in hand. Oh, yeh, he’ll also need tons of support from his family. Financial support perhaps, but DEFINITELY emotional support. That will help him as a writer more than almost anything else, knowing his family supports his decision to attempt such a profession in the first place. Hope this helps!
“Dear Scott, I think it’s cool that you’re moving from non-fiction to fiction writing. Who is your all-time favorite writer. No, actually, who do you think is the greatest living American novelist?”
Hmm. Why do you wanna know? Just kidding. Well, my tastes in novelists are pretty varied, to say the least. James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Judy Blume are my Holy Trinity–in other words, they are the writers who made me wanna be a writer in the first place. So maybe that answers your question? Maybe not, cause Baldwin and Didion both inspired me more as a non-fiction writer. I LOVE popular fiction, and on that front: I think Jackie Collins is a plotting genius (read Chances and tell me that I’m wrong); I think Lee Child writes you-are-there action scenes that leap right off the page; I think Peter Robinson writes some of the realest characters I’ve ever encountered in mystery novels; and I think Walter Mosley writes the best dialogue I’ve read in a long time, simultaneously telling story and providing trenchant cultural analysis of race and class that blows most writing out of the picture. But if I had to pick the greatest living American novelist? I’d probably pick Toni Morrison. And not for the books that you’d think. I’m not a fan of Beloved, to be honest; at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s a whole lot more than a really elegant and historically palpable ghost story. And I don’t really love The Bluest Eye, though there are tragic elements to it that move me. Interestingly, those two seem to be the Morrison books that get taught everywhere, that have been canonized and praised the most. I think Morrison’s best novels are Sula, Song of Solomon, and Paradise. They are the ones that feel full of life to me, resonant to the point of myth, and also most generous in the creation and treatment of the male characters. Sula and SOS feel connected to the real world, both through the damaged characters that people them and the layered, purposeful prose that tells their stories–Morrison hadn’t yet started with that gothically ornate style that, I think, mars Beloved and Jazz. In Paradise, however, she perfected it to chilling, bracing effect. (So much so that in the course of the book she can play a trick on you: the first line is “They shoot the white girl first.” And you never find out which character is, in fact, the “white girl”. Brilliant!) The three I love are also, for me, the ones that stand up best to re-reading, constantly revealing facts of life and love with almost biblical compassion. Yeah, Morrison’s the best…it’s scary to me how great she is.
If you have any questions about writing or publishing or want my half-assed opinion about something literary, email me at TheSPBQ@aol.com.