If a Tree Falls in the Forest and Doesn't Read Chaucer, is it Still a Writer?

It’s a week ago and I’m sitting on lukewarm linoleum floor in a basement because on Tuesdays and Thursdays all of my classes are in windowless rooms. (One might think this would diminish the distraction level, but, no cigar.) It might also be worth mentioning that in this floor-sitting scenario, I’m in the hall outside the classroom where my survey class takes place, not sitting on the floor during my survey class playing with toy trucks. I’m waiting for the big rotation; the chronoctical* framework of time allotments; the clockwork on which the university I attend is wound. Sentence fragment sentence fragment. Jazzhands.

Do I still have your attention?

Thank you for your patience.

I’m sitting there on the floor under a bell jar of caffeine withdrawal and poor air circulation, “taking notes” (re: disassociating in the margins with a pencil) on something John Stuart Mil wrote when someone asks me if I’m an English major. Because, surprise: someone else sat down in the general vicinity of my occupied floor space since I got there. Whodathunk.

I answer this surprise dude, “Yeah.” Then the needle sets down on the slowly rotating LP of my Better Grasp Of Consciousness and I add, “…do people who aren’t English majors take survey classes?”

“I’m not an English major,” Surprise Dude says. “When he [the professor] asked if there were any interdisciplinary people in the class, I was the only one who raised their hand. You didn’t, but it didn’t look like you were engaged, so I figured I’d ask.”

Well, yeah. I mean, I’m a turntable in a woman’s body. I have no central nervous system. It helps if I’m sitting next to an electrical socket.

Not the point.

Surprise Dude is a Classics major. He’s not only taking our lit survey of the 18th and 19th centuries, but also for the prior era. “I also plan to take the one after this one,” he says. “Because I want to be a writer, so I’m going to have to know it someday.”

Which prompts a flashback to Mr. Yale, my lower division survey professor. Not as often as he’d regale his class with proud anecdotes from his undergrad years at Yale, but often enough he would repeat to the class what he tells all students who come to his office hours saying they want to be a writer. It went like this:

If you want to be a writer, you MUST read Chaucer, you MUST read Spenser, you MUST read Milton, you MUST…

At which point the needle would lift from the LP of my Better Grasp of Consciousness and be swapped out for a recorded live reading of, like, Rilke? I don’t know. Honestly, it totally probably wouldn’t be a live reading of anything. It would probably be Arrivals and Departures or Static Age. For mentioning those two albums in the same sentence, an elitist punk snob somewhere is choking on their own vomit, but that’s their problem.

Because, Surprise Dude and Mr. Yale, if you want to be a writer, IMHO, there is no required reading list. You don’t have to slog through every last one of The Canterbury Tales or recite Wordsworth or be able to tell someone at the drop of a fedora the difference between a Petrarchan sonnet and a whatever-that-other-kind-of-sonnet is called. Not if you don’t want to.

And if when you say “I want to be a writer” you actually mean “I want to be a published writer”, I get that there’s some required reading there for business purposes. I have self-published friends who have to market their own books and I’ve written a handful of queries myself: I know you have to be able to compare your writing to what’s out there to give people a feeling of where in the galaxy of genres your stuff floats.

I get all that.

I’m just saying: by virtue of writing, like, a sentence (maybe even less), you’re a writer.

Mind you, I said nothing of the kind to Surprise Dude. There was no intelligent discourse on the matter. I kind of glazed over and murmured something about how too much disengagement is like cigarettes because it will give you emphysema of the soul. Then we stopped talking.

The following day, I had a vaguely similar conversation with one of my few neighbors who isn’t a fundamentalist about whether or not you can compensate for the perceived mopedishness of inline skates with a Misfits shirt (spoiler alert: by that logic, you can’t; not just because they sell them at Forever 21) (additional spoiler alert: it’s far easier to not give even the smallest modicum of a flying fuck). But I’m not going to regurgitate that here, because at some point I’m really just entertaining myself and I’d like to maintain some semblance of artistic integrity. That’s what it’s called right? The thing I’m trying to say?

Agree? Disagree? Do you have a required reading list? Did someone named Artistic Integrity punch you in the face when you were a kid?

*This is a word. I’m not even joking. I’m not telling the truth either. But I’m not telling it with a straight face. That’s what counts.


  1. I agree. No background reading here. Of course, I also got rejected by both agents I queried recently, so...

    1. Yeah... but even Writers Who Read The Right Things get rejected by agents.