Living Life Makes You a Better Writer

One thing that’s been on my mind, because I find it irritating like a grain of sand in an oyster, is the proliferation of what I call MFA novels. Setting is always a campus, characters are always professorial types, story lines are always midlife crises, interdepartmental affairs, sexual orientation challenges, etc. I think these are the products of MFA programs, which have sprung up like mushrooms all across the country, and I don’t think it’s a good trend for fictioneers.


Guest column by James M. Tabor, author
of Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the
Deepest Place on Earth (2010). The book has
been called a “Great Read” by IndieBound and
was named one of the best books of June 2010
by Amazon. He has appeared on “The Daily Show
With Jon Stewart” regarding the book.
He is also the author of Forever on
the Mountain
. See his website here.


In the interest of full disclosure, I attended a Creative Writing Master’s degree program myself, at Johns Hopkins, in the 1970s. But it was one of only a few in the country (the other comparables were Iowa, Stanford, and Columbia), and my plan from the beginning was to do something interesting, once I graduated.

Also in the interest of full disclosure, I need to say that while the program taught me some things about dialogue, character development, story arcs, etc., it did not teach me one damn thing about how to make a living as a writer. That was a serious failure. I learned on my own, very quickly, that nonfiction was way easier to sell than fiction, and went that route for a long time. Nonfiction treated me very well. I got to travel all over the world on other people’s nickels and met fascinating people in the process. Writing assignments also introduced me to hang gliding, diving, mountain climbing, windsurfing, caving, birdwatching, and other such.

If you look at my website
, you’ll see that I’ve done a lot of different things to make money in my life, in addition to writing: dockmaster, night club manager (booked Emmy Lou Harris and Bruce Springsteen when they were small), big city cop, magazine editor, TV personality, freelance writer, P.R. guy, horse wrangler, corporate executive, ad agency v.p., and book author. I believe that kind of variety is helpful, even if the experiences may not specifically inform a writing project like Blind Descent or Forever On The Mountain. (The experiences that informed those books were mountaineering and wild caving.) It’s like the difference between having eaten only chicken and having eaten dozens of other foods. How can you write about how a mango tastes if you haven’t eaten one?

I see that this is going the way of “advice to younger writers,” so will continue in that vein. All of the above, I guess, is urging writers to get out and see the world. You don’t have to drive an ambulance in a war (like Hemingway), but at least get off the campus for a while and do something that really scares you.

Okay, here’s another thing. Develop your scanner. I don’t know when it happened to me, but at some point my brain developed its own scanner. They say that Pavarotti referred to his voice in the third person, as in: “He’s not feeling so well today.” The scanner is like that, always on, always doing its own thing. And what it does is watch for what my agent calls “the golden ideas.” Base material, in other words, that can be turned into the gold of good writing. Blind Descent was born this way. I was producing a History Channel special and one of the hosts said, just casually, “Did you hear about The Great Cave Race?” Her emphases capped those four words, and when I heard them the scanner’s alarm started ringing like Quasimodo’s bells. The result, eventually, was Blind Descent, the book that generated a six-figure advance, caught Jon Stewart’s attention and hit (albeit briefly) The New York Times Bestseller List. So scan, scan, scan. After a while, it goes on autopilot, part of the autonomic nervous system. It really does.

Well, I think that may be enough OFP (Old Fart Pontificating) for today. Once again, thanks to Chuck for giving me space to talk to other writers. My email is jim[at]jamesmtabor[dot]com and I would love to hear from all of you. It gets real quiet in the winter up here in Vermont’s mountains where I live and hearing from the outside world helps a lot.

Writing nonfiction? Check out Peter Rubie’s
The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction.




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6 thoughts on “Living Life Makes You a Better Writer

  1. kat

    Well said. Another trend in novels I find irritating is navel-gazing. Why do so many novels from women these days come from manor women pontificating over the most inane things? People always tell me, "Wow, you have so many interesting and off-beat stores." Isn’t that the point? Live life.

  2. L. C. Sterling

    Couldn’t agree more. Look at Conrad, Melville, Twain.

    I think the MFA novels are also just the tip of the iceberg. The internet has created this mini-universe of "anyone can write" advice. Suddenly YA, horror, sci-fi, romance … all the stuff that used to be below the radar is now "mainstream" and everyone (it seems) is jumping on the bandwagon. We have far more quantity and far less quality. "Craft" seems to have been left out in the cold.

  3. Susan Gourley

    What you say makes a lot of sense, James. And I do love to watch The History Channel, and a few other of those educational stations. With four children, I don’t have time or money to see the world but I’ve lived a few different places and worked numerous jobs. Writers can also mine the memories of their parents and grandparents for insight into the wider world.

  4. Kristan

    I agree that MFA programs especially, but undergrad writing programs too, really need to educate their students about how to make a living as a writer. I loved my college experience and learned a lot from my professors, but that was the one shortcoming I saw. I discussed it with them, and I hope that they will take some action to remedy that in the future.

    Good observations and advice, thank you!


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