May 21, 2018KR BlogBlog

A Writer’s Capacity for Selfishness

During my time in the MFA, I met a woman a few years younger than me at the bar after a reading. She was also a writer, but not in the MFA program.

“I want to write more than anything, but I can’t see ever getting an MFA,” she told me. “It just seems like a really selfish degree to get. I couldn’t do it—something that selfish. You know?”

She said this knowing full well I was earning my MFA. I took a sip of my beer and smiled at her.

“I guess I can do something that selfish,” I told her. “Because here I am.”

*

Is writing selfish?

It feels like it, sometimes. It feels useless or selfish whenever the crushing reality comes down that we spend our time drafting all these words that very few people want to read. It feels that way when we see how the world is already flooded with writing and surely doesn’t need any more. It feels like it when we compare our time at the writing desk to time spent engaged in activism, or volunteer work, or something more concrete that can help people.

Look, I get it. My story or novel will not save lives. I know this.

But it could, you might tell me, or more likely, this is something you tell yourself about your own work. And I’ll grant that you’re not wrong. Haven’t you ever read something that you felt changed your life? Something that made the world somehow seem better or more bearable or beautiful or less lonely?

Maybe to ask whether writing saves lives isn’t the right question. Maybe the question is about art more generally, and why people make it or seek it out.

Art is not money. It’s not food or safety or health care or clean drinking water. But that doesn’t mean it’s selfish—not by a long shot.

*

Do a search online for “writing” and “selfish” and you’ll find a ton of hits, including articles like “Do You Have to Be a Selfish Bastard to Be a Writer?” and “Why All Writers Are Vain,” not to mention the anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, which surrounds the perception (largely attributed to women) that being a childless writer by choice is inherently selfish.

You’ll also find this quote from George Orwell, who once wrote: “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”

I’m more interested in the “mystery” Orwell conjures than the vanity or selfishness. Rebecca Solnit puts it this way in her excellent LitHub essay:

“There is certainly more self involved in artmaking, or some kinds of it, in that it is often solitary, usually introspective, and sometimes personal, but that plunge into the depths may be as much about dismantling the blithe vanities of the unexamined life as celebrating yourself.”

And when it comes to the motivation to create art, Solnit doesn’t consider it as mysterious as Orwell did. She writes:

“You make art because you think what you make is good, and good means that it’s good for other people, not necessarily pleasant or easy, but leading toward more truth or justice or awareness or reform.”

*

Admittedly, that woman I met in the bar didn’t say writing was selfish so much as getting an MFA is selfish.

To spend two or three years earning a degree in writing—is that selfish? To study literature and create stories or poems and workshop other students’ creative work? To probably teach undergraduate courses as part of the program for a pittance, or work on a literary journal, or tutor students?

Look. Being in an MFA program is not Doctors Without Borders, or the ACLU, or a hunger strike. It doesn’t save lives. But it sure as hell isn’t investment banking or advertising. Are people pursuing degrees in business or marketing accused of being selfish?

Maybe the selfish part is pouring those years into a personal artistic goal with no guaranteed payback in the form of publication or future employment. I’d argue, however, that those factors make the degree an impractical or idealistic choice, at least when viewed through a capitalist lens. But not selfish.

*

If I sound defensive, it’s also true I’m aware that my ability to leave my career for an MFA program is steeped in privilege. Yes, I took certain steps to be able to pursue my dreams in this way—first and foremost, I’ve always lived below my means—but that was possible in the first place based on the upbringing, opportunities, and personal circumstance I was born into.

Perhaps the young woman in the bar felt conflicted about her place in the world, how it’s not fair that some are able to spend hours immersed in writing work when others elsewhere are struggling to survive. Maybe she had it drilled into her, as so many writers have, that pursuing an artistic degree is a waste, unwise, or a sign of self-absorption. Or maybe, in that moment, she was merely afraid to go after what she most wanted.

I’ll never know what she was thinking that night at the bar. But I have come to learn something else about her life in the years since I met her: She has since entered an MFA program in creative writing.

I suppose she had the capacity for selfishness—and for artistic ambition, and for pursuing what she most loved, and for striving despite the odds—after all