Philadelphia, 1972. It is the first day of class at Moore College of Art and Design, and a professor leans against his desk. He is rolling up his pressed cotton shirtsleeves with paper-like folds, methodical in the September sunlight. As the squeak of wooden chairs dies down, he neatly finishes with his cuffs and turns his attention to the room full of all-female freshman. His introduction is brief: he says, calmly: “There are no virgins in my class.”
Do you think he had their full, outraged attention? Damn straight he did. This is a trick every writer should learn. Seven words, spoken almost fifty years ago, and we’re still talking about it.
Of course I wouldn’t recommend using those words, particularly if you are an older male professor at an all-female college. This is advice I believe to be sound whether the year is 1972 or 2020. For only seven words, there are – as academics say – many things to unpack1.
There are two parts to this smoking gun of a statement. The first – the technique – is the trigger; the words themselves. They are incendiary, provocative, infuriating. These words manage that most difficult of acts – capturing head and gut together. In the same way the most effective memory palaces often tie information to R-rated imagery, the statement’s framing triggers listeners’ gag reflex along with their imagination. The strength of the reaction guarantees a memory is formed. It is what gives these words their staying power.
The second part of this statement is the content – the bullets, if you will. Bullet points. I have obligingly arranged four of them below for your perusal.
But before you get to them, let me line up some additional circumstantial evidence to support my case for these words’ depth beneath the conceit. This particular professor’s other signature phrase (as became apparent to students throughout the rest of the semester) was: “There is nothing new under the sun.”2 To wit: the artist isn’t inviolable.
A human unquestionably has the right to chose whether or not to engage in sex. A writer – once engaged in art – cannot choose to keep ideas out or in. They are immediately compromised by their eyes, their mind, and the actions and interactions necessary towards putting their ideas into the world. The popular conception of Genius, the stereotype of the “sole creator visited by revelation”, therefore fails to acknowledge the artist as one more participant in a complex ecosystem of knowledge.
Failure to acknowledge a fact doesn’t make it go away. This particular failure can, however, cripple a writer’s efforts to produce intelligent work. There is no such thing as intellectual chastity, and artists fail the ideas that drive them by pretending to it.
This line of reasoning leads me to the following four points – my own expansion of the professor’s seven words. What it loses in concision, it makes up for in PG rating.
The (Not) Like A Virgin Guide to Creating Stuff
- You don’t create in isolation. You are not – and should never try to be – safe from others’ ideas and influences. Seek out intellectual viewpoints different from your own. Rigorously engage with them. Figure out what you think about them, and why you think that way. Other’s ideas, whether you agree with them or not, are powerful tools with which to shape and magnify your own unique viewpoint.
- You don’t create in a state of purity. Interesting viewpoints don’t arise from mental or emotional abstinence. Engage with the world around you, and don’t be afraid to feel things strongly. You may choose to later refine the expression, but the initial emotional burst often provides the energy necessary to see the piece through to completion.
- Step away from perfection, move toward the unknown. Your own ideas are not perfect and untouchable. Productivity is a constant negotiation with flaws. Don’t be afraid to write two pages and discard one, or chop and splice away until the piece that emerges is substantially different from your initial idea. Your work’s flaws may be attacked by others; that is to be expected. Your job is simply to make sure it doesn’t attack itself from within by never seeing the light of day. This may mean discarding your initial vision for the piece.
- Don’t view others’ work as pure and perfect, either. Be unafraid to question, take apart and reconstruct ideas and work that has meaning to you. Autopsy your idols, if you will; seek their mystery. Give credit honestly, generously, frequently: it’s one of those small courtesies of civilization that make the whole house of cards worthwhile.
1 Let’s address this in the footnotes: not because I believe it should be metaphorically shoved to the bottom of the page, but because I believe you are smart enough to already sense the problems intrinsic with the statement. In the spirit of putting a few of those problems on paper, here it is: viewed from 1972 and second-wave feminism, the words were an uncomfortable shock. They smacked of chauvinistic gatekeeping, a boys-club bastion around the perception of creative and professional excellence. Viewed from today’s #MeToo movement, they become downright skin crawling: a hint of intent towards a more physical threat.
However, based on other anecdotes of this particular professor, I believe him guilty of chauvinism but not intent towards physical harm. And that doesn’t mean I’m not perfectly happy to pull apart his words to see what gives them that fifty-year punch.
2 You may be questioning my sources. My mother was one of the art students in that freshman class.