The first important step on how to become an American writer is to read and relish Lorrie Moore’s classic short story, “How to Become a Writer” and rip it off for your unrelenting, unsteady stab at how to become a writer.
(It will certainly aid your quest if you were a long-time non-writing teacher of fledgling writers and used Moore’s story to inspire them (but not yourself) to produce the most eccentric and darkly comic American stories you’ve ever read. In the Literature Industry, the meta-information contained within these parentheses is called “irony” and that you recognize irony and employ it with vertiginous effect and employ “meta” as a prefix indicates you might actually be on your way to becoming a writer.)
After reading Moore, unexpectedly enter the American criminal justice system. Upon entering, under no circumstances whatsoever, no matter how tempting, use words such as “crucible” or “supercilious” with representatives of the system. Dumb it down. Moreover, make no literary references to your situation and especially from the operas of Arthur Miller or George Orwell. They will backfire. They will kill you. They only work with writers, you know, the people you want to become, the special people with super powers of insight and empathy gifted with unique storytelling abilities so critical to the well-being of our culture. Yes, believe that about writers. When you discover the truth, it might actually turn you into a real one.
Next, go directly to jail, preferable a county jail located in a rural coastal area of the Pacific Northwest. There, you will be assured of a plentiful and colorful supply of incarcerated white men and golden material for writing. While in jail, be sure to ask the men about salmon fishing and what makes for a satisfying Western novel (answer: action!). Read Westerns in jail, a lot of Westerns (don’t worry, they will be amply stocked in the jail library along with Bibles and Nora Roberts). Reading Westerns might provoke a fantastic idea for a modern tale set in a corrupt coastal county obsessed with cannabis tourism and the salt water taffy trade. Make the kick ass sheriff multilingual, a sex addict, a pill popper, and with an eccentric propensity for wearing corduroy Western wear of the Kenny Rogers brand. Have him talk to bald eagles and look for clues in the dead faces of road kill coyotes. Also, throw in some fierce justice for the downtrodden or wrongly accused in the Western because the genre was invented for exactly that reason. But don’t get carried away. This is fiction.
While in jail, wear striped attired, sleep on the floor, play chess, play checkers, write love letters, watch insanity, invent rock band names, listen to Guns N’ Roses, eat cheese-less cheese sandwiches, lose 15 pounds, meet your fellow inmates, mention your writing credentials, teach a quasi writing workshop, and then look out! Look out! The men will narrate stories like shotgun spreads to the face and you will never forget them because such stories aren’t supposed to occur in America, at least the America you thought you knew. For example, what is the story of why perfectly good clothing ends up in the shoulders of scenic highways? Well, now you know and the story is better than any creative writer could have ever imagined. Write it up!
The inmates’ stories rate at least 72% true, which is a much higher rate than most creative nonfiction published in the little magazines. The men are giddy to share their stories and want their stories in print—right now! It’s up to you to follow through and the men all want signed copies of the book. They all hint that if follow-through is lacking, they will track you down and kick your ass. What ideal motivation to become a writer! A real deadline with real ass-kicking consequences, not merely angst or disapproval from a professor. Serving time in jail is your greatest asset. It’s like your own private low-residency MFA program (which costs about the same when you figure in all the fines, court costs and charges for tooth paste and phone calls to your mother). Hell, it’s practically a seminar in there! Hell, the author and MFA teaching god George Saunders said writers need to meet more Trump supporters so writers can help better understand their blind motivations. Hell, most inmates in rural country jails are Trump supporters so you have that going for you, too!
A county jail in the fantastically liberal state of Oregon is also an excellent place to land because no one who ever dreamed of becoming a writer ever expected to land in a place where the Bill of Rights is entirely absent. Use that. Remember that Chuck Berry, Thoreau, London, Mandela, MLK, Wilde, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, Kesey, Kerouac, Genet, Ezra Pound, O. Henry, Thomas Paine and Dostoevsky served time in the slammer and wrote some gold behind bars. In fact, Chuck Berry wrote the greatest rock and roll memoir of all time in prison! Speaking of Chuck Berry and rock and roll, Chuck is dead and so is rock, but that doesn’t mean you can’t harness the once-formidable energy of rock and roll to become a writer. But for god’s sake, make sure the harnessing is obscure, cryptic, semi-artsy. Think of Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song.” Think of that song’s breakdowns, harmonies and limitless guitar solos. Write like that song and you will become a writer…at least of album liner notes, a once viable, noble and semi-lucrative literary genre that is deader than Old Marley’s door nail.
One other key point to remember: not only dudes became writers in prison. Remember that Piper Kerman went up river on a federal drug hitch and later wrote Orange is the New Black. It was a bestseller! She became a writer! Netflix turned the book into a series! It’s still running! Kerman is rich, rich, rich and an advocate for sentencing reform! That could be you!
But it won’t be because you’re not a writer yet! It might be that you haven’t suffered enough.
(If you found this post enjoyable, thought provoking or enlightening, please consider supporting a writer at work by making a financial contribution to this blog or by purchasing an NSP book.)