Five Questions for Walter Kirn

Walter Kirn

Walter Kirn

Name: Walter Kirn

Title/Occupation: Writer
Organization/Company: Self

1.Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?

I grew up in a couple of tiny towns along the St. Croix River in Minnesota, towns so small that the summer tornado sirens were practically the only entertainment other than waiting each evening to see the fireflies. From there I went to Princeton (see my book) and then on to Oxford University, where I took a stab at becoming a playwright. A year in London, failing, ended that dream, so on to New York to work in magazines, the last of which was Spy, the late great humor rag. By then I was writing short stories, had a book on the way, and knew that i couldn’t make it economically in the big city without a straight world job. On a freelance assignment in Montana (I was covering a survivalist cult here that thought the world was going to end) I found a 60,000 dollar house, plunked down a small down payment, and here I’ve stayed. I like it because the lines for stamps are short and I don’t have to comb my hair that often.

2. Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why?

John Berryman’s Dream Songs, a cycle of poems; Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited; and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. All these works had Minnesota connections and proved that art could come out of my home place, which I hadn’t believed early on while growing up there.

3. What skill, talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?

I wish I could maintain a decent filing system and fill a single notebook from start to finish rather than living in a cyclone of clutter and scrap paper and scribbled-on matchbooks. That way I wouldn’t lose so many ideas and doing my taxes wouldn’t take a month and fill me with dread that eats into my writing.

4. What do you do to make a living? Describe a normal day.

I make a living writing for papers and magazines rather than teaching, which many of my friends do but strikes me sometimes as a fraudulent activity, since nothing I’ve ever learned as a writer has come to me in a classroom. Quite the opposite. The lessons I learned in school had to be unlearned, programmatically, before I could communicate in English. In school, and especially at princeton, I learned an entirely different language founded on words like “hermeneutics” which are meant to keep readers out, not draw them in.

5. Have you ever had to make a choice between work and art? What did you choose, why, and what was the outcome?

I used to think that work and art were opposed somehow, like marriage and true love, say, but over the years I’ve come to see that keeping work out of your art and vice-a-versa impoverishes both of them. At Oxford I learned that our language’s greatest writers, from Shakespeare to Dr. Johnson, collapsed this distinction, singing for their suppers without apologies. The notion that mere toil and fine expression are separate activities is mostly propounded by wealthy amateurs.

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Walter Kirn’s memoiris Lost In The Meritocracy. He was recently reviewed in the NY TIMES (where there is also a podcast) and appeared on The Colbert Report.

One Comment

on “Five Questions for Walter Kirn
One Comment on “Five Questions for Walter Kirn
  1. I just saw the Colbert Report interview about the Walter Kirn book: “Lost in the Meritocracy” and find this whole discussion absolutely riveting. While I haven’t read it yet I must admit my introduction to the entire subject matter lead me to an immediate need for further study and conversation of the term “meritocracy”. As a terminology, “meritocracy” is new to me and I love it. The concept of meritocracy within my generation fills a void in what I see as the decaying of today’s youth. Perhaps it is within meritocracy where we have unwittingly handed down a sense of entitlement to our children. Except now, within today’s children their dispensation seems to have surpassed class difference and has no valid basis of merit. I find this not just scary but incredibly dangerous. This topic has come up countless times with friends and it always ends in a state of confusion: “How did we come to this?” Now to some degree, I can see an answer to this sociological mayhem. It is important to note, I have found myself engaged in this ‘where did this sense of entitlement come from in our children’ conversation with people from all walks of life – from Ivy League graduates to the 12 grade educated. What ever their status in life today the collective view is always the same: Where did we go wrong, How did we get here?

    The great virtue I grew up with the one that connected all of us was simple, and pretty easy to follow no matter what school you attended. This is America that means; if you work hard, be a responsible law abiding citizen you can achieve success in your endeavors, be respected, and pursue happiness. I proclaim this to be true despite a class system that has been in place since John Adams stepped on to the Harvard campus in 1751. Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a sea change. Within that cyclone basic virtues have been washed away. It became easier to mass-produce our citizens as opposed to continuing to cultivate our people. Fear, competition, greed, speed, immediate gratification, all played a part. My words may seem general and in some cases trite but I can assure you they not. I come to you from the other side of this discussion. I did not attend an Ivy League school of any kind – far from it.

    I am a product of these “standardized tests” went to state & community collages and unfortunately never quite finished my degree. I am all too aware of what was taken from me as part of the mass production of our educational system. When in the public school system from grade school, straight through to high school Ivy leaguers in their infinite wisdom decided I didn’t need to know things like: Geography, Spelling, & Handwriting. So even today at 42 years of age I struggle to read a map, can’t spell without spell check, & have a horrific handwriting. The worst part was getting to collage and being completely unprepared. I can remember the shell shock of that first week of collage. The realization of the big lie – All those years in high school being told that I was being groomed or prepared academically for collage. I recall vividly getting my first set of classes and had to take a class that taught me how to study in a collage environment it was a required course and less than a 3 credit course. It made no sense to me at first. Why would I need this high school taught me what I needed to know right? I have studied all my life right? After 2 weeks in large lecture halls I understood very clearly why every freshman had to take that course. The university was getting us up to speed, attempting to make up for what they were sure the high schools did not give us – a shot at graduating. I went as far I could. As far as my mind, money, & spirit would take me. Then ventured out into the real world – were quickly I learned how to equalize myself amongst the meritocracy.

    By the time I was in my early 30’s I was with them. A child who had grown up on welfare, with less than a notable education I reached the meritocracy at least from an economic & social standpoint. Not in government or finance but certainly in corporate America. Life experience taught me what school would not. A good foundation of family and intrinsic worth filled the gaps. There was never a time that I felt a sense of entitlement. If anything I felt betrayed by those we thought were supposed to be smarter because we thought they could afford to be. Now of course I understand that was no more true than high school being a preparatory academy for collage.

    My fear today is who will lead us? Today’s youth in the public school system have it far worst than I ever did. Today’s youth have an attitude of entitlement that comes without meritocracy. Obama has his work cut out for him. I wish him well with the Ivy Leaguers (elite) and with those brilliant people who have done superior work. He has much to do; I am confidant there are many who can help him do it. I have faith in his ability to choose them and dispose of them accordingly. It will take time and strength. If we are to support the work we must be patient, go back to basics, keep it simple, and remember the values that made us glad to tell our children they were Americans: “This is America that means; if you work hard, be a responsible law abiding citizen you can achieve success in your endeavors, be respected, and pursue happiness.” Thanks for listening…

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