In his recent column in The Week, Francis Wilkinson asks whether professional writing has become an activity for the rich, since almost no one makes meaningful money at it. He notes:
“In 1896, Richard Harding Davis went to Cuba to report on what his publisher, William Randolph Hearst, fervently hoped would be a war. Hearst offered the 32-year-old writer $3,000 for a month of work; Davis expected to collect another $600 freelancing for Harper’s Magazine. Davis was a well-known and popular writer. But even the most famous print journalists today would have a hard time duplicating his earnings, which would amount to six figures in today’s money.”
With legions writing for free, and with most writers who are paid earning peanuts (especially if they consider their hourly rate), the fact is that the craft is a calling. Or, as a sensible businessman would say, an activity for “artists,” by which he means “idiots.”
But college creative writing programs are packed. The recent Association of Writing Programs conference in Chicago was host to 8,000 writing teachers and students. Interesting shifts are occurring in English departments because students are flocking to classes in writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction while avoiding the traditional study of literature.
In his essay “The Rise of Creative Writing & the New Value of Creativity,” in the February 2009 issue of AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, Steve Healey notes and defends the proliferation, saying a creative writing degree constitutes a great liberal arts education and fits a body for today’s economy about as well as anything. “[A]n increasing number of American workers are valued not for their ability to produce things but to produce concepts, emotions, lifestyles, and experiences—and this class of workers increasingly wants to consume those same abstract products,” writes Healey. “. . . The skills that have the most value in the new economy are often those practiced in this academic field—including the ability to manipulate language, to affect audiences in powerful ways, and to craft evocative stories, characters, images, and voices. [T]oo few of us are willing to consider how rapidly and thoroughly post-industrial America has taken on a creative ethos, how that desire for escape from commercialism has itself become a commodity, and how many of our students are actually receiving valuable training for the new economy.”
Healey says he asks his students why they’re there, and he reports: “Overwhelmingly the answers resemble my own motivations for taking Creative Writing: my students want freedom from an oppressive curriculum that demands too much rote critical thinking, dry textual analysis, and academic prose strangled by thesis statements and Strunk & White correctness. As a teacher, I feel that same buzz of liberation, partly because my students seem so happy to be there, and also because I feel less pressure to teach and evaluate them according to conventional standards. None of us in this field can quite understand why this freedom is allowed to exist in an institutional environment still apparently controlled by those standards, but we also know that understanding is not necessary, because here we are, and we’re in demand. We can accept that mystery at the core of Creative Writing as long as it continues to succeed.”
Moreover, he adds, in the writing classroom “poems and stories are not passively consumed but actively created; and they’re exchanged not for profit but as a ‘humane’ gesture that asks for nothing in return. [T]he familiar opposition between cultivated humanism and vulgar marketplace, between impractical creativity and practical profitability, is rapidly disappearing, and this disappearance has contributed to the Creative Writing boom. . . . Students are savvy enough to understand how powerful creative literacy has become in our current social context. Whether they see Creative Writing as rebelliously impractical or career-mindedly practical or just a fun way to earn credit, they want access to its power.”
There you go, art for art’s sake, with a twist in that it’s ultimately practical. Surely a small percentage of graduates will become regular writers, and a tiny percentage of that subset will make any money. For most people, writing, like farming, may function best as a calling, as a hobby, as part-time work, as prerequisite for the day job. Professional writing always begins there, in any case, with someone writing a term paper or a poem or a short story and pleasing himself and perhaps a teacher or parent.