Clean the Toilet and Become a Writer

toiletI cringe when I think of how many MFA (Master of Fine Art) graduates in writing universites are flushing out.  Open any writer’s magazine and the ads are chuck full of these programs.  To the brim.

It bothers me that all these fresh young things graduate from college and instantly enroll in MFA writing programs expecting to write the great American novel.

Where is the experience?  Where is the life lived?

I’d argue that an auto mechanic who has 10-15 years out of school with a strong desire to write has a better chance of writing the great American novel than a fresh faced newbie right out of grad school.

You have to live your life and digest your experience before the words can percolate through your system and be transformed into the fruitful manure of stories.  Notice I didn’t say shit.  There is enough of that out there.

You don’t need any degree or any program to make you a writer.  In fact, it may debilitate you in the long run.  I am always reading about editors complaining that this program or that program is putting out similar types of writers who write in very similar styles.

All you need to become a writer is a desire to write.  And as you progress through life you may wind up writing that great American novel.

I used to clean expensive homes that were rented to vacationers on the shores of Lake Michigan.  I did not mind cleaning toilets.  What bothered me was picking up the trash of people who went on vacation.  It would reduce me to tears, and on a few occasions, heaving sobs.

The people on vacation would throw their garbage will nill into the garage, barely bagged, where I had to collect it, put it in my Jeep, and take it to the dumpster miles down the road.

This job taught me that people on vacation do not think of the person that will picking up after them.  On vacation they are suddenly reduced to spoiled two year olds without their mommy telling them to make sure they GET IT in the trash, Dear. 

But I can harvest this for my writing.  I can use this crap and turn it into the compost which my characters will grow out of.

And I’m a richer person for it.

Photocredit:  © Ellen Wilson

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34 Responses to Clean the Toilet and Become a Writer

  1. Friar says:

    30 years ago, university degrees were relatively scarcer, and there were more opportunities for grads.

    Nowadays, bachelor of arts are a dime-a-dozen. (I’m not putting down the degree, just stating the facts). Like you said, the market is flooded with them, the universities are just cranking them out.

    Harsh reality, is when these grads realize that the world will not necessarily be beating a path to their door, once they get their piece of paper. It’s still up to THEM to MAKE success happen.

    PS. It pisses me off (pun intended) at seeing how filthy public toilets are (do idiots actually treat their bathrooms at HOME this way?). I’d like to take the culprits, and push their noses into their mess, like they’re a bad dog.

    Whenever I’m in a hotel, I kinda feel sorry for the person scrubbing the toilet after me…(what a shitty job). So I try to be as neat as reasonably possible.

    (Again, pun intended). 🙂

    Friars last blog post..Basil the Special Dog (Updated, Part III)

  2. Writer Dad says:

    Amen, Ellen. I’ve never had a writing class in my life. But I love to tell stories. That may not be enough to finish, but it’s sure enough to start. Anyone can get the ideas down, the mechanics can come later.

  3. I agree that life experience is important. And that even highly unpleasant experiences can shape you into the person you are, enrich your life experience and provide material for writing.

    Now I’m curious to know if any of the classics – the greatest novels of all times – was written by a very young person.

    Vered – MomGrinds last blog post..Almost-Wordless Wednesday: Correct Your Nose Without Operation!

  4. Ryan says:

    Funny, because I’m currently considering an MFA (More Fun Academics!), and I do wonder if it is really worth it–worth the money, the time, the “academic exposure.” It’s really the exposure that I’m afraid of; I’m afraid of becoming boring, getting forced into writing garbage to get a grade.

  5. steph says:

    I agree that not all who graduate with an MFA come out great writers. But if the program is anything like my university-level creative writing courses, student will still learn much about writing. Not everything can be self-taught. In these types of programs you learn how to take criticism, develop a tough skin, and also gain contacts, exposure, and guidance from more experienced writers, aside from learning the mechanics of good writing. Many MFA writers are finer for having taken their courses. I know them personally.

    I do agree that a desire to write is important. But as an editor I have read countless pieces of absolute shit that no amount of editing could fix, written just because someone had a desire to write, and they were old enough, these authors, to have experienced quite a bit of life. Desire is far from all you need. You must have skill as well, innate talent, and excellent powers of observation, at the very least, to be able to craft finely-wrought works worthy of being read.

    Were an MFA free (I have more than enough student debt, thanks!), I wouldn’t think twice. And my five years at university shaped me more than all my years of life experience afterward.

    stephs last blog post..Finding Your Voice – And Sticking with It

  6. Friar says:

    @Ryan

    Just be aware, that whatever full-time job you end up with, it might not have ANYTHING REMOTELY RELATED to do with what you studied in Grad Skule.

    You might end up doing your “real writing” at home, after hours.

    (like what I’m doing right now).

    Friars last blog post..The Parking Nazi

  7. I think a good mix of experience and training is good. Most other artists go to school to study their craft: visual art, dance, singing, acting – and yet because almost every writes on an almost daily basis, we feel that we don’t need to learn how to write.

    I would take more writing courses, but as a starving artist my wallet is empty, so I take free workshops, the best of which I’ve found on the Forward Motion Writers website http://www.fmwriters.com – what I’ve learned from these workshops has improved my writing exponentially.

    And as Steph says, having a polished product is important – if you haven’t taken the courses, then get an editor who will show you where you need to improve.

    Because seriously you don’t want to be the ouch-my-ears-hurt-why-are-you-auditioning-for-American-Idol of the publishing world.

    Alex Fayle | Someday Syndromes last blog post..Our Lives Are Full of Stuff – Full Text Answers

  8. Lance says:

    There is a lot to be said for experience. So, I say, right on – to this post! Someone with experience (in whatever) and a strong desire to write has a much better chance of success than someone who is doing it for all the wrong reasons.

    We learn from all the experiences we have (like trash, and toilets). At the time, some of these experiences might seem like they are just no fun. The thing is, though, they may become something more for us later in life. Excellent perspective today Ellen!

    Lances last blog post..Fog: Does It Slow You Down?

  9. Wendi Kelly says:

    Ellen
    I think that this is why I thought that I would always *become* a writer when I turned 50. Even though I have been writing since I was old enough to hold on to a pen.

    And yes, I took every english and writing class that I could find in grade school , high school ( until I dropped out) and then when I went back to college. I have also taken grammar classes. (bleck…mostly so I could learn to break all of those rules)

    What makes a great writer? A combination of being willing to learn, AND writing from your heart, your life experiences and the wisdom you glean from it.

    Do you have to go to a university to learn it? NO. There is knowledge all around us. Many writers learn to write by reading and copying the styles of great writers that they enjoy. By reading, we can learn a great deal about our craft. You just have to be open to absorb the knowledge around you.

    Wendi Kellys last blog post..A Letter to the World

  10. When I started taking writing seriously, I asked my brother (already a fantastic writer) whether I should take creative writing classes. His answer? “God no! Just keep doing what you are doing. ” I think being a writer is a way of life, a way of being, not so much something learned (unless you need to learn grammar and editing skills, in which case take a course). I see the world as a potential story, then I write about it.

    Urban Panthers last blog post..Food, friends, and life lessons

  11. Karen Swim says:

    Ellen, very good points! School does not create the talent and perspective, it simply equips you with the technical tools. School does not teach you to be a writer, it just teaches you how to write – big difference!

    Karen Swims last blog post..A Day of Rememberance

  12. steph says:

    To take it a little further, in the end what counts is what will get your writing published, or accepted, if that’s what you want. If you write solely for the fun of it, no problem.

    But what gets your writing published is its ability to sell. the publisher wants what the readers will like, what will give them a satisfying reading experience. (Kind of like Kelly’s maximum customer experience!)

    In that sense, I agree that schooling isn’t necessary. An editor will take a badly-written story that meets the publisher’s requirements over a well-written story that doesn’t. I think that much is evident, though at the same time, if there are two stories that meet the requirements and one is well-written, she will choose the well-written one, of course.

    Yet, I don’t think that if you did go to school it was necessarily a waste of time. I stick by the benefits I wrote earlier.

    stephs last blog post..Finding Your Voice – And Sticking with It

  13. Cath Lawson says:

    Hi Ellen – I almost enrolled on an MA, after a writing tutor recommended it to me. Then I read a post on She-Power and Kelly said she’d done it and it was a waste of time.

    I love the way you have taken something as mundane as ditching people’s trash and found a way to write about it. It’s great that even the annoying things in life can inspire us.

    Cath Lawsons last blog post..7 Questions To Ask Before You Launch A Business

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  15. Friar says:

    These seconds thoughts about graduates degrees are not just reserved for the liberal arts.

    I’m still trying to decide whether a PhD in engineering was worth it.

    Seems like it’s diminishing returns

    …I feel like 75% of all the benefits and skills I gained were in the first four years of undergrad. It took 6 more years of Grad School to gain the remaining 25%

    Friars last blog post..The Parking Nazi

  16. Ellen Wilson says:

    @Friar – That’s nice of you. I hear men’s (public) toilets really get nasty and dirty. It pays to take aim.

    University degrees are big business now. I don’t think you need a degree to write, though.

    @Writer Dad – You are a case in point. A prolific writer who loves to write. All you have to do is study what you want to learn and it will come naturally. It comes naturally by reading. A LOT.

    @Vered – I don’t know how young you mean by a “very young person.” I think the Bronte sisters were pretty young. I’d have to look it up.

    @Ryan – I think you summed up the major points. I don’t know if you would necessarily be writing garbage, though. Some people swear by the workshop experience and others think it’s a load of crap. You can also join a workshop for free where ever you live. I smell another post coming on.

    @Steph – A well written critical comment. I agree with most everything you have said. You do need a certain amount of innate talent which can be finely polished. I also think that you need to read a lot in order to become a writer. I’ve heard it said that most voracious readers are probably writers. It’s something you need to practice and part of the practice is reading fine writing. You don’t need an MFA to do the above.

    One of the major pulls of the MFA experience is the contacts you will be make. This goes a long way in getting published in a literary magazine.

    @Friar – True. Life is strange and it rarely follows the script we give it.

    @Alex – Yes, that’s where good editing comes into play when you have a piece that’s finished and needs to be polished. And that’s also when you can enlist the help of friends or your fellow workshop participants to help out. And not everyone is good at this because writing (fiction) is so objective.

    I agree that you will only get better with practice (if you have the desire). I don’t think acting, visual arts, or singing schools are growing exponentially like MFA programs are in writing. Mainly creative writing. But really, I don’t know, because I don’t practice any of these art forms. Profressionally.

    @ Lance – I think you can write perfectly polished and well crafted fiction without a lot of life experience. But you need to be able to get into people’s heads and see a lot of other view points besides your own to really delve into the heart of the matter. Most people right out of college lack the maturity to do that. Wallace Stevens said that it will take a writer at LEAST ten years to start making any inroads along the publishing path. I generally agree with that. Of course we will always see exceptions to the rule.

    @Wendi – Yes, your last paragraphy for me sums it up. That’s really the way to become a great writer.

    You can learn everything you need to about writing, mechanically, in high school. You might even get a really good teacher that helps you on the path.

    I never liked grammar either, I’m always writing site instead of sight, their instead of there. I know the difference, but I catch it later after I write. I can edit it on my own post, but unfortunately I can’t edit it on a comment I left on someone else’s!

    @Urban – Highly agree! It is an organic process. Like shitting! Seriously though, that’s why I used the digestion and toilet and all of that analogy and metaphorical stuff.

    Writing is a way of being. Yes, and we are the translators of this huge story that’s constantly playing out before us.

    @Karen – I agree you can teach someone the mechanics but not the magic. The magic comes from within. The things that an MFA teach you can learn on your own. And you know I’m finding out I can even learn the marketing techniques on my own. Thanks to you and your wonderful advice!

    @Steph – I think to be published commercially, and I’m talking about a novel with a fairly large publishing house, you need to have a track record that shows you are a good investment. I’ve heard that if your first novel didn’t do that well it will be that much harder for you to get published. So yes, what will get you published is your ability to sell, not if it’s a great work or not. And the publishing industry is getting harder and harder to break into.

    @Cath – To be fair I think everyone gets something different from schooling, some positive, and some not, and sometimes a combination of both. But for the most part I’ve heard, and come to believe, that a masters will not make you a better writer. It will give you the connections to help you on the path, but all else is debatable.

    @Friar – I think a PhD in engineering is a great accomplishment. I would think getting an MFA in writing is a great accomplishment!

    You did go through all that work and there’s something to be said for that.

  17. Amy Derby says:

    There’s a good headline if I ever saw one. 🙂

    I agree with you that you don’t need any degree or any program to make you a writer. And life-experience can mean a huge difference.

    Working in corporate hell inspired me to write a novel about it. It’s still an unpublished novel, but it’s something.

    I’m of the uneducated camp myself, so I’ve had many people look down on me for that. It’s a shame really, that society labels and assigns values to things (like titles, degrees, etc) the way they do. Their loss.

    I really enjoyed this post. Made me think. Which is pretty good for a rainy Saturday. 🙂

    Amy Derbys last blog post..Fiction Friday: Sex with Ghosts, and other stories

  18. Ellen Wilson says:

    Hi Amy,

    I remember you mentioning your novel once over at Men with Pens. The theme(s) sounded very interesting. Yeah, I have a long memory. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s bad.

    I hope you can get it published if that’s what you want. And what a pain-in-the-ass that is. I’m going to start my marketing scheme with my new novel (around the beginning of the new year hopefully) and I’ll share what I know, find out. I now have some rejection experience from the the first behind me.

    You don’t need a degree to do many things. You can teach yourself, or put yourself in an apprentice situation, which, now that I think of it would work very well for a lot of people.

    Most of my education was a complete waste of time and money.
    But, like I was saying to Friar, it was difficult and I’m proud to have done that. But there was a very big price tag for it all.

    The rain is certainly pressing on us today. We just escaped a tornado over here.

  19. There are certainly many things you can manufacture, but good writing is not one of them. It sounds like these are modern day writing factories trying to crank out as many ‘writers’ as possible in the most efficient manor possible.

    There’s no doubt that life experience is what makes for a well rounded writer. Before I started my consulting business I did every J-O-B under the sun. Some waiting tables, sales, phone polling. You name it, I did it. And even though many of these jobs were going no where, I learned so much from my daily goings on. The different aspects of each job gave me a different perspective on things and a better understanding of how and why people thought and acted the way they did. Like your trash cleaning nightmares, many of my ‘bad’ experiences turned out to be a great source of depth and character as a person and a writer today.

    “Motivate Thyself”s last blog post..21 Simple Pleasures You Can Enjoy In A Moment’s Notice

  20. BC Doan says:

    I’ve always love to write, and somehow find my way back to it through every hurdle of life. Great post!

    BC Doans last blog post..Support "Train For Humanity"

  21. Hi Ellen,

    This is my first time visiting your site – I discovered it through Vered’s site, MomGrind – so hi!

    I had a number of customer service positions when I was young and one of them was cleaning hotel rooms. It amazes me how disgusting people can be when they don’t have to clean up after themselves. Now that I am older, however, a number of great stories come from the experience. I haven’t written them down but I’ve thought about it.

    Vered asked if any really young people had written classics. Emily Bronte was young-ish – 29 or 30 when Wuthering Heights was published. Their are two that have always struck me though – 1. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was 20 years old and the novel has never been out of print. 2. S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was 17. It also amazes me that she was able to write a book completely about young men.

    These are exceptions though. I agree that better writing comes from more experience.

    Kim Woodbridges last blog post..(Anti) Social-Lists – 9/14/08

  22. Hi Ellen,

    This reminds me of our business. We have young (and some not so young) people who call us and say they just graduated from equipment/truck driving school, and they are looking for a job. If the school teaches them “wrong”, we have to unteach them. We’ve found the best employees we can hire are those with on the job experience who learn in “life’s classroom”.

    I’m thinking writing is similar and the more experience we have in life, the more we have to share.

  23. Ellen Wilson says:

    @Motivate Thyself – University Programs are businesses designed to “manufacture” writers. Some of the programs are better than others, but one of the reasons they are popping up all over the place is because of the money they can make from people.

    @BC Doan – Thanks for that. Life does pitch us some curve balls at times. I think writing can be therapeutic also.

    @Kim – Glad you stopped by. I’ve always thought hotels were rife material for stories, with all the people who come through there.

    I didn’t know Mary Shelley was only twenty when she wrote Frankenstein. I haven’t read that book yet.

    I loved the Outsiders! What a classic. Rumblefish was good too.

    @Barbara – It seems odd that people need to unlearn truck driving techniques/heavy equipment techniques. But then again I don’t know how to drive a truck or heavy equipment so it’s hard for me to visualize.

  24. Marelisa says:

    @Ellen: I suppose that when you don’t have “the degree” and have gone through the school of hard knocks your writing is more raw and immediate than someone who’s basically applying the steps and the rules they learned in school. Although there is some remarkable young talent out there. Someone on television was saying last night that they paid their college room mate to clean up after them, so I don’t think it’s just people who are on vacation who don’t pick up after themselves. Some people just don’t have enough decency to make sure that their garbage goes into the garbage can. Well Ellen, you got a great post out of cleaning toilets and I’m sure you’ll get a great novel out of it as well :- )

    Marelisas last blog post..30 Things to Do in the 100 Days Left in 2008

  25. Ellen Wilson says:

    Marelisa,

    “Raw and immediate.” I like that.

    I agree slobs are everywhere. I suppose it starts at a young age – you have to teach your kids to pick up after themselves or they won’t. Maybe we are all inherently lazy. I don’t know.

  26. Dot says:

    I’d be interested to learn whether research bears out your hypothesis. I suppose in the majority of cases it might.

    I still remember two guys in my high school who could have written awesome novels, had they decided to be novelists. Instead, one of them went into movie set design (and was nominated for an Academy Award), and the other became a pipefitter. In the field of music, I think of Mozart.

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  28. Pink Ink says:

    I used to write novels when I was in high school, and I think most of them revolved around a fantasy of living in France with my wealthy parents.

    Now that I have life experience behind me, I might still write about living in France with wealthy parents, but my story should have more depth :-). That’s my hope anyway.

    There are some young writers out there, though, who still turn in a well-crafted, amazing story. SE Hinton of “The Outsiders” fame comes to mind. I think she was in her teen when she wrote it.

    Pink Inks last blog post..High School Love

  29. Ellen Wilson says:

    @Dot – You never know how awesome it will be until you write it. All it takes is a little time each day and dedication and after a year (usually) you have a book.

    I liked that movie about Mozart, Amadeus. Great movie.

    @Pink Ink – Yeah, SE Hinton is great. She was one of my favorites when I was a kid. Rumble Fish was also a great book.

    People say write what you know but fantasies are also what we know. Now that you have more perspective on people and their behavior you can really put some muscle into it. I try to write a few pages a day. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s okay.

  30. Jenny says:

    I always think things turn out better when you write from the heart and about things you are passionate about. It’s one thing to write about abc, but it’s another thing to write why you chose abc.

    Jennys last blog post..Don’t Laugh At…

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  32. Carla says:

    “All you need to become a writer is a desire to write. And as you progress through life you may wind up writing that great American novel.”

    That is really good to know. I though about writing on and off for years but unsure of my skill though I have a lot to write about. I will keep your most in mind.

    In terms of vacationers and cleanliness, we may be in the minority, but before leaving a vacation home (cheaper than a hotel in many cases), we always make sure the garbage is taken out – regardless if its required or not. When we lock the door and leave the keys, the dishes are going though the dishwasher, towels are in the dryer (if not already folded) and everything is pretty much where we left it.

  33. Here via Mom Grind.

    I couldn’t agree more! I work in film and it’s the same thing – a ton of filom school graduates who know obscure french films and think they will be great directors but they have no idea how to set a light or how shoot so eye-lines will cut in the editing room – drives me insane!

    Don Mills Divas last blog post..Let him be

  34. Ellen Wilson says:

    @Carla – Good to hear you are a clean vacationer. You are in the minority from my experience cleaning up after people.

    Another thing that most people don’t realize is waiting tables is just as nasty. Well, at least from a stand point of not knowing how things are connected. For instance, tou have no control if a cook messes up a dish. And then some people will yell at you and it will be reflected in your tip.

    Yes, never give up on yourself. The main thing is consistency if you’re going to write a novel. Sit down each day and write a paragraph. Or a page. Extend it to two. Before you know it it is your habit and you love your story and have to finish it because the story is this entity that has a life of its own.

    @Don Mills Diva – I really think that being a great director is seeing the whole picture and making it work. Yeah, you get all these little pieces of arty things, but unless you can translate it to the larger picture – the film, it doesn’t really matter.

    I am fascinated with directing and hope to sometime hope to either direct one of my stories or work with a director. I really think that I would have a talent for it.

    Good luck with all of your projects!

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