Tuesday, November 17, 2015

John Keats Slogging Away: Getting Your Writer's Education

In a previous post, I highlighted a recent article from FSG's Work In Progress about how one of America's most unique writers, Kurt Vonnegut, became that way. He recognized the wealth of information and material he had to work with at his day job of writing press releases for General Electric's newest inventions and technological escapades.

It is important to recognize what kind of writer you are, and what your strengths might be. Where might you find your richest experience? In books? Have you done a synoptical study of a subject that would make for interesting reading in story form? Do you work somewhere with many unique types of people? The more aware you are of the types of information or experience you're steeped in through every day life, the better prepared you are to incorporate them into your novel or short stories, and when you do that, the writing will most likely feel more vibrant as it's coming from an organic place in your life.

Zadie Smith, in her book Changing My Mind, gives an inspiring account of the tragic John Keats' personal education that eventually spawned a very thin, but very memorable book of poetry during his short twenty-five years on this earth:
For Keats went about his work like an apprentice; he took a kind of MFA of the mind, albeit alone, and for free, in his little house in Hampstead. A suburban, lower-middle-class boy, a few steps removed from the literary scene, he made his own scene out of the books of his library. He never feared influence -- he devoured influences. He wanted to learn from them, even at the risk of their voices swamping his own. And the feeling of apprenticeship never left him: you see it in his early experiments in  poetic form; in the letters he wrote to friends expressing his fledgling literary ideas; it's there, famously, in his reading of Chapman's Homer, and the fear that he might cease to be before his pen had gleaned his teeming brain. The term role model is so odious, but the truth is it's a very strong writer indeed who gets by without a model kept somewhere in mind. I think of Keats. Keats slogging away, devouring books, plagiarizing, impersonating, adapting, struggling, growing, writing many poems that made him blush and then a few that made him proud, learning everything he could from whomever he could find, dead or alive, who might have something useful to teach him (103-4).

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