Mwangi: George R.R. Martin’s $5M donation and the marketability of creative writing

Duncan Mwangi, Op-Ed Contributor

Word on the street is, George R.R. Martin, one of Northwestern’s most renowned alumni, is back at Northwestern and he’s feeling generous enough to donate a creative writing professor to NU. Or maybe he’s donating to a creative writing professor at NU. Either way, a chair is involved.

I snagged a spot at the Nov. 10 luncheon in Scott Hall, one of three appearances Martin made on campus, by posing as a recent convert of HBO’s “House of the Dragon. Given my ridiculous attention span and a longstanding hate affair with fantasy (because of said attention span), nothing could’ve been further from the truth.

Martin was there in all black, flanked by his assistant of nine years and two NU professors tinkering with sound and television media. I learned the alumnus is donating $5 million to the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications in the service of storytelling, establishing a creative writing summer program and an endowed professorship.

Listening to him speak about his voice and media influences, interviews with activists and experience bundled up with a lot of roommates in Uptown and his extensive career writing sci-fi and fantasy literature and screenplays — it felt like an anointing of sorts.

My time in the NU creative writing program has rekindled the feeling of art in bringing people together. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, I was in my first-ever writing class, taught by the talented 2018 Caine Prize Winner Makena Onjerika. I connected with fellow budding writers from all over Nairobi. Together, we imagined scaling the heights of publishing and getting our works adapted on the big screen, despite having undergone an education system that delegitimizes creative writing as a career. Then we transitioned to Zoom calls, and the dimensions of our contact changed.

My first writing class at NU was a poetry class with Prof. Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb in Fisk Hall. I was living a nightmare — three classes in a row every morning. Poetry was usually something I was good at deciphering, but only through a formal process I had developed in my high school literature classes. It was refreshing to see her make a game out of every lesson. Despite dropping the class early in the quarter, it encouraged me to seek out more creative writing classes. A few resolutions down the line, I am a proud creative writing minor.

I am well aware of the fact that creative writing is deemed unviable by many social, scientific and political institutions of our time. Creative writing classes are the only classes where I receive unsolicited reassurance about my career and financial prospects. The idea that all of us can fill our pockets if we choose to lead this life seems almost alien. All my writing mentors, from Onjerika to my current NU professors, harp on the material implications of a creative writing career.

Even Martin, who drew so much wisdom from his writing heydays (in addition to donating a chair), took the time to impress on us the value of the dollar. It’s not a needless concern. The precarious nature of traditional jobs for creative writing majors outside academia means we’re not some cogs that will easily fit into the system. Therefore, it makes sense that the underlying premise for most of Martin’s advice is: don’t go broke chasing your dream.

There’s no doubt Martin’s mainstay genres, sci-fi and fantasy, rake in the bigger bucks. They bring writing much closer to the technological and futuristic ambitions that society is obsessed with today — metaphysical ambitions, design ambitions, ambitions regarding diversity, the doomsday clock. They also seem to draw out most of the money from other cultural institutions like film and fashion. They attract audiences across ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds compared to other creative writing genres. Other genres can only bear glimpses of such success.

There’s the feeling of pride that comes with exploring all genres of writing, whether or not they end up being my mainstay. It doesn’t matter if I end up writing for a Marvel movie or a personal blog — I have a feeling my passion for writing is here to stay. It can be a little jarring to realize that I will never have the same distance between me and my work as most of my corporate peers will. Like them, I’ll need to start at the bottom and then work my way up, but never with the same kind of flexibility. If I commit to writing, there’s a chance I’m stuck with it for life. It wouldn’t be a bad life, despite the wily ways of the publishing industry — how they’ve aggressively marketed seminal queer and Black works in the past by emphasizing the identities of the authors.

Anyway, I am not above making money.

George R.R. Martin’s donation chiefly targets journalists who want to be creative writers, just like him and me. It aims to teach writers skills across fiction and film. All I can ask of NU’s creative writing program is to leave room for writers who are curious, suspicious and who look at everything with double intent — writers who question everything, even the publishing game they’re committing their lives to.

Duncan Mwangi is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.