In Defense of the Belt
It was the night John Woodman knocked out Kyle Bradbury in Las Vegas, a stunning head kick half way through the 2nd round. In Chicago the rain was lashing the pavement just as hard, pounding relentlessly on the grey, miserable streets of the town, and we ducked into Bobby’s bar to get dry. Taking off our soaked caps and plaid shirts we swiftly ordered a round of Guinness and dropped into a nearby booth recently vacated by a trendy young couple and proceeded to warm our bones.
“A round of shots, too, Bob!” I yelled. I was amped up and eager to talk.
The result of the fight had left me feeling angry and depressed. I had wanted Bradbury to win. Not just because I’d had money on him to do so, but because Bradbury was great. I believed in greatness, and I always wanted it to endure. He had been the champion for over seven years. I hated to see some things come to an end.
“I thought he had him in the 1st” Joe was saying, swivelling in his chair to hang his jacket on the back, rain dropping steadily and forming a small pool on the floor.
“Bullshit, had him in the first! Bradbury was in total control until that kick, had him beat all ends up on the ground.”
“It didn’t look that way to me” Stu said, leaning back as Bob set his drink down in front of him.
“Yeh well” I scowled, quickly downing my shot, “you weren’t watching properly, then.”
I sat staring blankly straight ahead for a second. “It was a hell of a knockout, though” I mused thoughtfully to no-one in particular. It really had been.
We got to talking hurriedly and excitably the way guys always do over sports, each one’s voice getting louder than the last. From over our shoulders, the doors swung open, letting in a blast of wind and rain and noise from the traffic on the street, shutting it all out just as swiftly as it let them in when they fell shut again with a tight, heavy clang.
It was really coming down out there. Four young women walked into the bar and looked for a place to sit. They were still perfectly dry under umbrellas, immaculate makeup and expensive macs. Their carefully crafted exteriors had been preserved. Ordering a bottle of expensive red wine, they sat in the only vacant booth left in the place, right next to ours.
“It’s such a shame we didn’t get to ride this morning. I had Bessie all ready to go. She’d looked tired these last few days. She’d even been off her hay.”
“What time is your writing class tomorrow, Jane?”
“Not until four-thirty. I think we’re going to go in a bit squiffy, Trent and I. You know, for the experience.” She began to giggle.
“That is so decadent of you” the one in the tight grey sweater squealed. They all began laughing and giving each other high fives.
We had been watching them the whole time, the title talk put annoyingly on hold. Joe, a guy who would fuck a puddle if he could, leaned into their table and pointed at me.
“You should talk to my friend here,” he winked. “He’s a writer. Just had his debut novel published last month.”
The four women, who had turned their perfect ponytails with a look of contemptuous dismissal at Joe, now turned with sudden intrigue to face me.
“Gosh” one of them exclaimed, the lead one, the one that was pretty only in a bland and generic sort of way. “Really?”
I was annoyed. I didn’t want to talk about writing. I wanted to talk about the god damned fight.
“Yeh” I replied, feigning politeness. I knew Joe was only using it as an excuse to talk to them with a view to joining their table and then seeing where luck would take him. I wasn’t remotely interested in any of them and looked back up at the screen above the bar that was showing interviews with both fighters. The place was too loud and crowded, though, and I couldn’t hear a thing.
“My name is Jane. This is Emma, Grace and Chelsea. Are you at the University, too? Which class did you take?”
“Class? I, no… I didn’t take any class” I replied distractedly, eyes turned to the screen.
“’Didn’t take a class’?” she repeated with a sort of condescending tone. “How on earth did you become a writer, then? Chelsea, have you heard this?” she scoffed disbelievingly, nudging her nearest friend.
Chelsea had heard, and was looking at me for the answer. Joe was still leaning forward expectantly, like some dumb mutt on heat. If ever a dog pissed against the wrong tree, he was it. Joe was the kind of guy that would roll the dice on any girl he met, figuring there was nothing to lose. But there was. There was always something to lose. He had no chance with women like these.
“Yeh come on” he begged desperately, “tell us how you learned to write.”
I squinted viciously at him and he slunk back in his chair. “Well” I huffed in mild irritation, my voice now strained as I turned back to these awful women, “I got beaten down low, lower than you can possibly imagine. Then I got kicked and beaten. Then I got kicked and whipped some more. Then I had a drink and thought about it for a while. Then I began to write.”
Stu laughed and sipped his drink. Joe looked perturbed; what was I doing??
The one called Grace looked at me with anything but. She was the ugliest one, for what it was worth. Quite big, too, with a cruel little slit for a mouth and ears that sat unevenly on her doughy head. Her mother must have named her ironically, I thought.
“Why do you think that qualifies you to be a writer? It makes you sound more like a bum.”
“Why do you pay thousands of dollars to be taught something nobody can teach?”
I hadn’t wanted an argument, but it was clear it was going to go that way. These women were crude morons with all the charm and grace of finding a hair in your food. They had an air of superiority about them I’d never liked in anyone and showed my friends unnecessary rudeness and disdain. I had seen their kind before. A bunch of spoilt, supercilious bitches who thought money was the answer to every question. I was in a bad mood already. I took another drink, warming nicely to the fight.
“Can’t teach?” Jane scoffed. “Why, of course you can! I got 67% last year on my creative writing module. This year I got 80%. So clearly something happened in between.”
I could hardly believe it. Had I heard it right? Did she really just say that?
“Of course something happened” I said, turning to face her properly now for the first time, my eyes boring into hers. The intensity of my gaze caused her to look away. “You wrote more in line with the rules and the guidelines set down by your teacher and the governing body”, I continued evenly. “That’s what happened. Like a seal that picked up a pen. Surely a girl like you is perceptive enough to realise that much at least?”
I grinned and took another sip. “Not to mention you pay them thousands to attend. They’re hardly going to fail you, are they?”
“Well if a sportsman didn’t have a coach he wouldn’t improve. It’s the same thing.” She was turtling up, getting defensive. She looked flustered and annoyed. Some stand and fight until they’re soaked in blood and there is no battle left to fight. Others don’t have the stomach for it and you can usually tell one from the other right away. These were people incubated in whatever passed for polite society. They had never struggled or been challenged in their lives. Nobody had ever told them ‘no’ or deigned to disagree with them. “It’s the same as anything else” she bleated haughtily.
“No, it isn’t” I snapped. “Writing isn’tthe same as anything else. Writing isn’t a sport. It’s a blood sport” I hissed dramatically, grandstanding now, toying with this soft, easy prey.
“You can’t be taught how to do it in a classroom any more than you can be taught how to rip a man to shreds with your teeth. Any more than you can be taught to eat his flesh and wash it down with wine. No great writer ever paid to learn his craft. You read a truckload of books, live fiercely, remain open and receptive to life and new ideas, then write violently with passion and fire in your gut. You read, you write, you mean it. That’s it. That’s all there is. No tricks, no workshops, no courses.”
Stu grinned and rolled his eyes. I was laying it on thick for sure.
“That’s a naïve point of view” she scoffed back, flailing now for a crutch. “The lecturers provide ideas, tips, structure and feedback…”
“Why aren’t they great writers, in that case?” I cut in. On the screen they were replaying the fight from the start. “If they’re teaching it then why have I never heard of them or seen their books on the shelves? Ernest Hemingway never taught a writing class in his life. Nor took one.”
“I disagree! I’m doing English and creative writing and the workshops are incredibly useful and give you tools to help you create much better stories.” She seemed indignant, petulant, pouting, like a child deprived the pony she had been promised for Christmas. She looked as though she might burst into tears at any second.
“It leads to generic stories, writing where everybody is taught to write in a similar way, according to ‘grades’ and ‘rules’. Whose rules? Writing is not mathematics. It is not a science. All anyone has to do is live, read and unleash their own voice. And either a person can do that or they can’t. I may be a good writer or an average one, but whichever it is I got there on my own, I didn’t pay someone to do it for me” I sneered with all the contempt and bile a person can hold. I loathed these people.
It was too easy. She didn’t have the heart for it. She wasn’t used to not getting her own way and had bitten off more than she could chew. My bad mood was lifting now, though I still couldn’t hear what the hell Bradbury was saying up there about the head kick. Had he seen it coming? Did he rate Woodman now? Did he want his belt back?
She sipped her wine, tried to gather herself and play it cool. “Writing takes practice and guidance like anything else. You wouldn’t become a world-famous sportsman without a coach and mentor, no matter how much you watched other people play. Also, the lecturers frequently have books or articles published. I can give you a list.”
“Spare yourself the trouble. The practice you talk of lies in reading incessantly and writing over and over again until you become good at it. Like I say, nobody taught Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald. Aren’t they generally considered to be some of the best writers of all time. Am I right? Similarly, writers who made a huge cultural impact, such as the Beats or Hunter Thompson, were not ‘coached’. It’s an art and you have to work hard at it. But like Henry Miller said, in the end you either have it or you don’t. I’m not trying to denigrate your course, talent or lecturers; I just can’t see how an original, passionate voice comes from being told how to write in a classroom or lecture hall. The key to any great art is passion and hard work, not ‘tools’ and rules and grades. It isn’t in knowing your allusion from your anthropomorphism or knowing when it’s ‘supposed’ to be used. Those are just terms one could get from a dictionary in any case. Knowing them and how to invoke them does not make a great writer, in my opinion. And if it does, it’s nothing one couldn’t pick up from reading a plethora of books and authors for themselves.”
“Then why do any degree at all?”
“Because you can be taught to be most things, almost everything in fact. But I don’t believe being a writer is one of them.” It was getting tedious now, and I wanted to bring it to an end.
“Some would argue you can’t be taught ruthless business savvy, or how to paint exceptionally well or how to get the best from people and manipulate them. Some people are naturally more talented than others but if you think critiquing and learning, and studying and analysing the way other people write and their process is a waste of time then please carry on.”
Her cheeks went red with rage at that point, and I knew I had her. Joe had long since given up and was talking to Stu about who would win in a rematch of the fight if it were to ever happen. I was eager to wrap this shit up and get back down to business with them. I ordered another round of shots in anticipation. Then I turned back to the girls who were finishing off the last of their wine.
“I didn’t say it was a waste of time. Nothing pertaining to literature that you love is ever a waste of time. I said one can’t become a great writer by taking a course. The history and list of great writers seems to bear that out.”
“Well there are students who took the course that have been published. Numerous times.”
Right! Numerous times. I only had one book out. Take that! She was getting better, I had to admit, like a blind kitten gamely pawing at a ball of wool. Maybe there was some fire in there after all. Maybe there was hope for her yet.
“I’m not talking about being published, neither the lecturers nor the students. Anyone in this day and age can be published. Anyone. I’m talking about being great. There are few if any great writers who took a writing course and there are few if any lecturers who are great writers themselves. That’s my point. That’s just a fact.”
She had begun pulling on her coat.
“Come on girls” she said to her motley clan of nouveau rich troglodytes, “I don’t know why we ever stopped in this horrid bar in the first place.”
“You’re welcome” I said, raising my glass as they prepared to head back out into the rain, their world views a little more rattled than before. They wouldn’t take it on board, though. People like that never do. They strode right past us in single file, not even looking as they left.
Fuck them, I thought victoriously. I turned back to face the screen.
That head kick landed flush again.
Bradbury went down in a heap.
There was a new champion in town.