If members of the English department were in the audience when Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter, and director David Mamet spoke at the Salomon Center in early December, they kept a low profile. And no wonder. During his rambling speech on writing and reading, Mamet questioned the value of higher education and the study of English literature.
"I'm not quite sure what the study of English literature is," Mamet said, advising the mostly student audience to avoid those who limit their taste. "Schools frighten me," he said. And in case any M.F.A. candidates were feeling left out, Mamet questioned the need to study writing in graduate school, saying that none of his favorite writers ever attended one. "I don't know what people study in writing school," said the author of Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, and Speed the Plow.
Instead, Mamet urged the students to get out and experience the world. He challenged them not to take the "shortsighted," or safe, choice. "To develop oneself," Mamet exclaimed. "That is called education.''
When asked by a student if he considered anything valuable about his formal education, Mamet retorted: "No." He did add, however, that his is a privileged position. As with a Pulitzer Prize, he said, saying a college education means nothing is easy if you have one.
As for his own work, Mamet urged the audience not to look for lessons about life in it. "It's not my job to teach people," he quipped. "It's my job to tell a story." At the same time, he continued, the very nature of writing makes the writer a minority outsider and a "whistleblower." The art of writing compels the author to confront oppression from the outside, he said, but at the same time one can be an outsider or a member of a minority group and still have nothing to say. The production of writing that is overly careful to be politically correct on matters of gender and race is the equivalent of censorship, he said, whether the censoring is done by the self or by others.
"The power of great writing," he concluded, "is that it comes from the heart."