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Saturday, January 12, 2019

Laying Siege to the Ivory Tower

I remember my summer English class extremely well.

I had just finished my spring classes, and was thrilled to be taking an English class; I loved my English classes in high school. While I didn't always like the books we read, I wouldn't have discovered amazing stories like Lord of the Flies and The Most Dangerous Game had it not been for these classes. Not to mention my Ol' pal Gatsby.

But I had a rude awakening when this particular English class started.

From the very first day, it felt like something was wrong. My nerd senses were tingling.

"We'll be reading The Nutritional Guide today and talking about that," Mr. Kuntz started, a surname he urged us to pronounce as "Koonts" and not "Cunts."

I don't actually remember the title of the book, but it was just a generic collection of nutrition essays.

I have a tendency to be naive in my optimism at times. It became immediately apparent that we weren't going to read any fiction at all, which is an egregious sin to English classes everywhere.

As soon as he explained the class curriculum, I had that feeling. That feeling that something shitty was going to tumble down in a snowball of "f*ckyou" and crash into my little cabin of composure. (Ok I stole that line from JaidenAnimations, but who gave it to her in the first place amirite?)

He had a tendency to ramble on indefinitely until someone pointed it out, which almost never happened because no one ever says a bloody thing in college, at least in So Cal. He was like Michael Scott acting like a robot until his proverbial battery falls out.

To summarize, he essentially conveyed that we wouldn't really be learning any English at all. The class was just a government-forced common-core lecture on nutrition masquerading as an English class. Over the next few weeks I was distraught, because the class we incredibly boring, the material we read was essentially just a textbook, and Mr. Kuntz was the personification of a wet sock.

What's worse is that everything he tried to teach us about nutrition was totally wrong.

During my spring semester I took Nutrition class and it was incredibly in-depth, it was so advanced that I barely passed despite countless hours of studying. The class was dense and difficult, but I enjoyed it. Our teacher was this fabulous Chicago gardener who was fiercely intelligent, and sometimes wise.

She warned us of every health myth we'd hear, every fallacy, and made sure to clearly draw a line between fact and fiction. So despite being a hard-ass class on a difficult and traditionally boring subject, I loved the course and learned quite a lot from it.

Then Mr. Cunts came along and chucked all of that out the window into a lunacy-fueled dumpster fire.

This nincompoop didn't know anything about nutrition. In his defense, he didn't know anything.

Brace yourself for lots of tweed if you're in high school.
At one point in the class he flat-out said, "If you can't pronounce an ingredient on a nutrition label, or if it sounds like it might be a chemical, then you should avoid it."

I was in shock. Did that really just dribble out of this fool's mouth? 

I politely raised my hand, and when he called on me, I pointed out that most amino acids and nutrients are hard to pronounce, things like Phenylalanine, Molybdenum, Calciferol, and Pyridoxine which are all healthy.

He dismissed me with a "Whatever" and continued blathering nonsense.

Well, the chemical formula for water is pronounced dihydrogen-monoxide, so time to give up water, folks.

(Reminds me of this, obviously they'd never seen Jimmy Neutron)

(Edit: Googled it and just discovered THIS amazing gem. This is some of the best satire I have ever seen.)

This same guy spent half the class ranting about Trump and trying to push his political views on the class (I don't care what someone's political views are as long at they're respectful, I'd be just as mad if it was an old Catholic trying to force religion down kids' throats) and when I called him out on it, he ostracized me in front of the class.

He was in the middle of a long-winded and vapid rant about how much he hates republicans, and I raised my hand-- he generally avoided calling on me now because I had a bad habit of calling him out on his bullshit-- and after ten minutes of him pretending not to notice me, I waited for a lull in his chatter and added:

"Couldn't the class time be better spent teaching instead of ranting about your political views?"

His face turned red and he was immediately livid, but the coward had no more bravery than a cod fish, so after a few seconds of stuttering and mumbling, he said, "Well, literature reflects our world, and the political landscape is important- don't you think it's impossible not to consider the importance of our political climate when talking about things that affect culture?"

Only of course he sounded much less eloquent and put-together than how I portrayed him; it took him a good couple minutes of incoherent stuttering to get out that message.

"But we aren't even reading literature, all we've done is read and write about nutrition- I feel like the class could benefit from practicing other forms of writing."

I knew my cause was lost before it even began, but I had gotten this far so I might as well.

I don't recall exactly how it happened, but basically he singled me out, saying something along the lines of, "I'm the teacher, I have a Masters degree, I've been teaching for almost ten years and you think you can do your job better than me, you lowly student peasant! Bow before my glaring academic superiority!"

So that's when I learned that you might not even learn anything in college. Well, that's not completely true- I learned how to deal with snobbery and Ivory Tower elitism- but whether you learn anything really just depends on what classes you take and who's teaching it, along with the course curriculum.

If you're lucky, you might get a teacher like my Nutrition prof who cared passionately about the subject and was happy to share everything she knew, but if you're unlucky you'll get a middle-aged wannabe activist rubbing their politics and snobbery in your face.

Unfortunately, he wasn't the only one- though he was probably the most intolerable one. Over half of my teachers were like this; overwhelmingly progressive activists who wanted to rant about Trump all day.

Don't get me wrong, if you're liberal and you don't agree with my political views or my conservative lifestyle, that's fine, as long as you're a good person. Despite leaning republican I have tremendous respect for many classic liberals, men like Dave Rubin and Jonathan Ames, and though I don't agree with her views, I really admire Emma Watson as a person, because she's candid and thoughtful about her views, and I respect her ardor.

But these snobby professors are nothing like Emma Watson or Dave Rubin. Even if you're a liberal and you agree 100% with their views, who wants to sit in class listening to angry political rants all day? If you're just kind of drifting through life and have no dreams or ambitions, or your aspiration is activism, then maybe I could see that not being an issue, but to those who actually go into college hoping to leave with more knowledge than when they entered, they're met with the harsh reality that the courses they're taking are just prescriptive, government lectures meant to teach students the "correct" way to think.

In college, they don't teach you how to think, they teach you what to think. You have to do everything a certain way, from MLA format to using someone's correct pronouns to having the right (left) political views. If you don't abide, you're socially blacklisted. This affects liberals too, but I don't want to get too political so we can save that for another time.

To put it plainly, college professors have undermined my naive optimism for the last time. I've morphed from a wide-eyed, hopeful child into a distrusting, hideous, amorphous blob of cynicism. Now I go into each course completely prepared for a shitstorm of pointless rules and useless lectures that I will leave wondering where the hell my three hours went.

I'm very fond of alternative learning- I've been taking various online courses for fun on sites like Skillshare and Masterclass, etc. I like watching Bob Ross on Netflix, RealLifeLore and Vsauce on YouTube, and booktubers like Jenna Moreci, Chris Brecheen and The Authentic Observer have taught me way more about writing and literature than two decades of school has.

The idea of an institution for learning is a noble and virtuous endeavor, possibly one of the noblest feasible. The idea of creating a place where people can study, share knowledge and wisdom, and go to teach or learn through a general osmosis of the campus's atmosphere is wondrous.

But both the quality of teaching and quality of learning has been on decline since the first colleges sprung up some two-hundred years ago.

Now you go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to have textbook-worshiping professors shove ideological nonsense down your throat, while the campus administrators coo messages of tolerance and diversity in the background.

Who cares about tolerance and diversity? Bitch I just want to learn.

Chris Brecheen is a blogger who greatly inspired me to start this one, his blog Writing About Writing has several passages about Ivory Tower elitism, and despite being a hardcore liberal, he agrees wholeheartedly and essentially said the same thing; that college admins and professors are out of their minds and these students aren't going to learn anything useful.

There are exceptions, of course. If you're going into engineering, or law or medicine, odds are your classes will be very important and you'll learn everything you need to know. But for writing, teaching and literature? Don't waste your time (unless you have to).
Academia and Thebes share the same fate.

Unfortunately, I'm working on becoming a high school English teacher, so I have to tread through the fiery pits of hell before that happens (anyone have a copy of the Divine Comedy lying around?) 

As more and more inexperienced writers emerge from the womb of their college infancy into the real world, creative writing degrees depreciate in value faster than the Venezuelan Bolívar.

(Fun fact: it now costs 14 million Bolívar to buy a chicken. Socialism FTFW!)

By now, most traditional publishers have shifted over from academic credentials to experience. Between a college graduate with an MBA and a Master's degree in creative writing, and an experienced novelist who's published their own short-stories or worked in writing centers, they'll almost always go with the more experienced candidate.


Because they know work experience is much more valuable than a degree. A congratulatory piece of paper patting you on the back for graduating college is nowhere near as advantageous as actual writing experience.

And that's just with traditional publishing; independent publishing sites like Ingramspark and CreateSpace sidestep the traditional publishing process altogether.

Someone who spent thousands of hours writing and studying the craft is much more prepared to write quality content that readers will enjoy than diversity-forced-MLA-approved-avant-garde-pseudo-intellectual-anti-establishment bullshit.

Let me tell you how I started off.

(Skip the next 26 paragraphs if you don't care and just want to get to the conclusion)

I started writing at the tender age of 14, and my writing was complete garbage; but it was essential that I wrote that garbage, because, as Jake the Dog taught me, sucking at something is the first step to being kinda good at something.

I tried writing a short novel but I didn't understand how this whole "writing" thing worked, so after realizing that it was so bad that it was beyond saving, I threw it out and destroyed it digitally so as not to remind myself of my failure. It was 40,000 words long.

Then at 15 I sallied forth and tried again, this time with a better story idea. Not only was the story idea better, but I actually outlined the basic plot- the beginning, middle and end, and pantzed the parts in between. (Pantzing is writing-slang for winging it.)

After seven months of writing the manuscript, I finished the last chapter on March 11, the day before my 16th birthday. I would sit down and write about 1,000 words everyday, but that night I stayed up late and finished the book in one sitting, about 3,000 words, that way I could tell everyone I wrote a book at 15. Mostly because I had something to prove to this girl who rejected me because, as she so eloquently put it, I was "a loser who would never amount to anything." Turns out that spite is a great motivator.

Of course it was nowhere close to being finished, and had a shit ton of editing to do, but I was proud of myself. To this day, nothing has, or likely ever will be, a greater achievement to me than writing my first novel.

I ultimately spent a grueling year-and-a-half editing the thing; most authors follow a three-draft plan, but I ended up doing freaking five drafts, and then one last sixth "draft" (I didn't change hardly anything, so I think of it more as draft 5.5) to really be sure that it was good enough.

You see, for my 16th birthday my parents hired a professional cover artist for me, which really brought the book to life. The cover was stunning, and when I first saw it, I just couldn't stop staring. This really motivated me to finish the editing. However, I couldn't afford a professional editor.

And if there's one thing I learned, it's that you have to have a professional edit. No amount of editing can replace a professional copy-editors work. In fact most books should undergo a copy-edit, a line-edit and a thorough beta-read afterwards.

I couldn't afford an editor.

So I did the best I could, I wrote a second draft, edited the crap out of it and had a couple of reliable betas read it for me (these were some brilliant people, let me tell you. I felt very under-qualified to have them reading my work), and then after getting their feedback and revising the story to their recommendations, or at least the good ones that other betas had consensus on, I ran the entire book through an online editing program. There's a bunch of good ones out there, some are free with a catch (like only being able to run 3k words through it at a time) or they only cost like $30, so I used a couple different ones to really fix my writing.

And holy crap was my bubble shattered.

Every single line was a mess. Red lines underlining spelling errors, blue ones telling me that my grammar was wrong, purple ones showing me split-infinitives, orange ones showing me some other problem; my manuscript had turned into a rainbow, and each hue was a fuck-up that needed to be fixed.

So after accepting approximately 95% of the editing software's recommendations and implementing them, saving only a couple of intentional misphrasings and misspellings, I had a new set of beta readers give it a thorough trial by fire. I ended up doing several more drafts, having the betas compare different version of each passage (they were doing so much free work for me that we ended exchanging work so I'd do the same for their manuscripts as a trade) and finally I ran it through the editing software one last time, read the entire book start-to-finish like three times in a row and did a final, final draft.

I formatted it on CreateSpace and published it there. I didn't want to go with a traditional publisher because then they'd determine the price and distribution of the book, and I couldn't have that- so I had to format and publish it myself. All the other ~85k word novels were around $14.99, so I intentionally chose to sell mine at $12.99 to have it show up first when people sorted by price.

I published it in the August of my senior year in high school when I was 17. I was so proud of myself.

After publishing it, I struck a deal with another author who agreed to read my book and give me any feedback for my future writing; it was too late to fix anything but he could tell me how to improve my next story.

After reading through the whole thing and taking a day to think it over, he came back with his rating.


He was brutally honest, he tore apart every plot-hole and confusing line of dialogue, every passage that made no sense, and every boring moment or bad writing.

Yet he also said he loved the ending and a few really well-written parts, particularly chapter nine and the chapters leading up to the climax.

Basically, it wasn't a bad book. It wasn't great or amazing, but it was on par with what most modern writers should be capable of, and that was infinitely more than enough for me.

This isn't a sales pitch. I'm not going to tell everyone to buy my book, in fact I'm still a bit insecure about it. Over two years later, I recently decided to pick it up and take a stroll down memory lane, to see how my current writing compares to my first novel.

I was... conflicted. There were a few parts that I loved, but I felt the dialogue was awkward and clunky, and not everything made sense. It was entertaining, but it felt quite a bit amateurish and you could see that I fell for a lot of the basic writing mistakes that newbie writers make.

Not to mention I found not one, but two minor typos at the very beginning of the book, with maybe three more scattered around. The average reader probably would skim right over these and not even notice, but upon noticing the two typos in the very beginning of the book I immediately felt like a failure.

How these tenacious bastards withstood five-and-a-half drafts, an army of beta readers and two separate editing programs is beyond me, but in defeat I just left them there because that type of commitment should be rewarded (and also I'm too lazy to re-upload the book).

So no, I did not write the next great American Novel™, but I managed to make something of decent quality at a young age, and now, thanks to that mediocre book, I have years of writing experience that college graduates trying to get in the field don't have. And while I can't read anything from it without cringing at all the mistakes I made, I'm also happy, because if I can see these mistakes now that I couldn't see before, that means I've grown and improved as a writer.

At the time, I thought I had a perfectly finished and polished product that needed nothing else from me, but now that I can see the litany of amateur mistakes littering the story, I know that I must have improved a lot as a writer in order to see those faux pas.

Recently, I had one reliable beta reader take a look at the second draft of my current manuscript. He gave it a 7/10, which to me is a very hopeful sign. Afterall, 3/5 is a 6/10 (math FTW!), which means that, at least according to the anecdotal and limited feedback of a single reader, the early versions of my current story are already better than the final version of my previous one, and this gives me hope.

So what do we do then, as writers?

Isn't it obvious?

We write.

Creativity is like breathing- you inhale, and then you exhale. You read a lot, engrossing yourself in the brilliant fruits of other writers' labor, then you exhale, releasing your own words onto the page.

At times writing feels like constipation. Your metaphorical colon is full of metaphorical writing-poop, but nothing will come out. It's all backed up.

But if you sit down and force it out, eventually it'll just flow regularly (are we still imagining the colon metaphor?). But you have to get in the routine of prolific writing in order for that to happen.

Writing isn't a talent that some people are born with and others aren't. It's a skill, that's carefully developed and sharpened over the course of years before it can be mastered- and even then, you never truly stop improving. Everyday is a new day to improve.

And writing isn't just a skill, it's a lifestyle. If it doesn't feel corporeal, then it isn't habitual.

Habitual writing and fervent, radical improvement is the gateway to being both a skilled writer and a successful one. Learning both how to write and how to market are fundamental to success in the writing industry, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

So when an army of tweed-clad snobs comes running at you, frantically waving their textbooks in the air, with their prescriptive cookie-cutter solutions, picayune rules, academic elitism and political propaganda, lay waste to their bullshit with trebuchets loaded with life and work experience, and never let them force despotic avant-garde nonsense down your throat.

Continue reading, continue writing, and stay the course, we are with you.

As always, 

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

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