Welcome to the real world

A phrase I’ve come to hate is ‘the real world’, as in ‘you should try living in the real world’ or ‘welcome to the real world’. My world is just as real as yours; or rather, there’s only one real world and we’re all of us in it. This is what the American poet Richard Hugo (1923-82), who worked as a technical writer for Boeing before becoming a poet and creative writing teacher at the University of Montana, had to say about this ‘real world’:

‘I hate that phrase “the real world.” Why is an aircraft factory more real than a university? Is it? In universities I’ve had in my office ex-cons on parole, young people in tears racked with deep sexual problems, people recently released from mental hospitals, confused, bewildered, frightened, hoping, with more desperation than some of us will ever be unlucky enough to know, that they will remain stable enough to stay in school, and out of hospitals forever. I’ve seen people so forlorn that I’ve sat there praying as only an unreligious man can pray that I don’t say something wrong, that I can spare their feelings, that I might even say something that will make their lives easier if only for a few moments. Sad drug addicts too. Not people you usually meet in industrial offices. Often they are coming to me because I’m a poet and I’m supposed to be wise, to have some secret of existence I can pass on to the forlorn. In some ways the university is a far more real world than business.’

(From The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 99)