Dear Josh,

I’m writing you this e-mail from one of the delightfully oversized booths at Tommy Bear’s Pitcher n’ Ribs, just across Meridian Avenue from the Marriott Courtyard. I’m using the laptop that was loaned to me by the Sagebrush Romance and Western Writers Association of the American West (the SRWWAAW), whose annual conference I am addressing this weekend.

Now, Aunt Miriam mentioned that you were thinking about going to an MFA program in writing, and so I had to contact you. As you know, I’ve visited most of the major creative writing programs either as a guest speaker or as an undercover observer. And I say be careful: some of these outfits are solely in the business of taking your money. They hire a few drunks and dreamers to change the titles of your stories, pass out a few gold stars, and then send you home. In some ways, they remind me of those “National Poetry Contests” that are actually run by dark-hearted telemarketers in Canada who sit in their bunkers late into the night, counting up their fat entry fees and burning poem after poem sent in by us “stupid Americans.” Listen, rhyming poetry doesn’t win any prizes, national or otherwise. Believe me, Josh, I’ve learned that one the hard way.

Still, I agree with most that a few years in a graduate writing program is a terrific way to get some time to really focus on your writing and be among writers and listen to visiting writers tell you about the rare pleasures of writing and to wear the clothes and the little felt hats that writers wear. But as nice and as fancy as that all is, does it make you a BETTER writer? By which I mean, does it get you PUBLISHED?

Take for example, Mr. X. Timothy McBreathe, of Wild Heart, AZ, who is sitting across from me now at Tommy Bear’s buying me a beer and a plate of ribs. McBreathe is a writer I met here, an older fellow with no deluxe graduate schooling: just 37 big fat time-travel westerns in his files with 12 more outlined and ready to go, a good attitude, and a fantastic memory for jokes. You could learn a lot about becoming a writer from McBreathe and his comrades in the SRWWAAW. Why write a bunch of short stories in the second person about loathsome MFA graduates and their ilk when you can write about men hitting other men? Or women taming cougars? Or cowboys who die and come back as their horses — with vengeance in mind? Is it better to con your way into a book deal by getting the professor who has a crush on you to call in favors among his publishing cronies — or to really wow someone deeply and honestly by printing your manuscript entirely on attention-getting yellow paper and sending it along with a plate of chocolate chip bar cookies?

I know Carver drank a hell of a lot and Nathan Englander has that hair, and that’s pretty good: a writer should always be able to perform a few tricks. But this fellow McBreathe chews tinfoil instead of gum and opens bottles with his teeth and raised two daughters, one a commercial pilot, one a Navy lieutenant. He writes longhand, about a novel a month, and he will never quit. No matter how many rejections he gets, he will never pack it in and go work for the internet to pay off a student loan. He will thrive, Josh. He only drinks soda and calls me sir even when I’m drunk, and so I ask you: who’s more the artist?

It’s sad of course, because I know I won’t be able to sell a single one of his novels, and I’ll have to tell him so eventually. But on this afternoon, here at Tommy Bear’s Pitcher n’ Ribs, where I am already a regular, X. Timothy McBreathe restores my faith in this crazy business. You should think about him and maybe even call him before you sign that tuition check, Josh. And meanwhile: Jesus, Josh, you should try these ribs.

As ever,

John Hodgman
Professional Literary Agent