I am both excited and a little nervous to share my perspective on writing degrees with you. My feelings on the matter are so ambivalent that I hope I can communicate them without sounding like I am changing my mind every other paragraph. With that in mind, let me share my experience with you.
From the moment I could hold a pen in my tiny, uncoordinated hand and scribble letters, I knew I would be a writer. I wrote stories with markers, stamps, and construction paper that I crafted into tiny books with string or staples and gave to my family. My sister still has one that I gave her. She whipped it out about a year ago—I was both pleased and embarrassed. Maybe your story is similar to mine, or maybe you discovered your love for writing in high school, in college, or later. It doesn’t matter when you knew because being a writer is all about the experiences that make up who you are, making each story as unique as a fingerprint.
Because of this, I never thought I would get a writing degree. I knew I had talent, and in my teenage mind, that was all I needed. If I was dedicated enough, if I worked hard enough, I could become a published author. I was lucky that my parents supported my love for writing, though they still encouraged me to consider something practical as well. I chafed every time I heard that word. Practical. What an uninspired, unadventurous concept.
During those high school years my older brother had a friend that was a sort of mentor and role model to me. He was a writer, a good one. And though he was eventually published, I heard stories of how publishers were unwilling to work with him because he didn’t have a degree in writing. So he went to college and got a writing degree. Again, my mind rebelled at this. Why did someone need a piece of paper to grant them the ability to write?
When I went to college, I was involved in a film program. Why? I don’t know. I loved film. I loved the idea of screenwriting. But the program was new and had too many kinks to be worked out. After one semester, I knew I needed to rethink my degree. I just wanted to write, but being in a serious relationship and knowing that I didn’t want to live with my parents for the rest of my life, the word “practical” began to rear its ugly head in a bit of a more attractive way. I looked into professional writing. I thought about it, tried it on like a new pair of shoes. But I knew from Tracy that the teacher for the introductory classes was a miserable excuse for a man, and when I thought about it honestly, I knew it wasn’t in me to write grant proposals and other such nonsense.
While I was turning creative writing around in my head, knowing that I was as unlikely to find a supporting job with that degree as an art history major, sign language interpreting fell into my lap. I took one class for a foreign language credit and fell in love with it. As satisfactory and addicting as writing is, it was good for me to discover that I had other abilities, other areas in which I could challenge myself. I’ve come to believe that is important for writers. As fun as it is to stay cozily in our idealistic bubble worlds, it is good to face reality, to see and experience the real world. The more we do that, the more our understanding of life grows and the more our writing improves.
You may be amused to hear that I double majored in creative writing because it was easier than minoring in it. To get a minor, I would have had to take two Shakespeare classes. I won’t make you suffer through a full page of “hahaha,” but know that I am laughing hysterically just thinking about it. And though my writing degree subjected me to some of the most irritating, soul-grating experiences of my college years, I am grateful for it. It humbled me. It challenged me to work outside of what I was comfortable with. I am a novel writer to my bones, and taking up a degree focused solely on the realm of short stories was like forcing my foot into a size three shoe. But it helped me to define myself as a writer, more than I ever could alone.
It also exposed me to what is happening in the world of writing, the hundreds of other students at my university alone clamoring for stardom—it popped my bubble. Talent is not enough. Dedication is not enough. You have to know what is out there, past and present, you have to work at perfecting your craft, at taking and applying criticism. And you have to get lucky. That is the hard truth of it. And this is where I say something that some of you may not like very much.
Be practical. Be idealistic.
You see, I’m trying to disillusion you as much as I am encouraging you to pursue your writing like a crazed maniac. Be a writer. But be something else too. At the University of New Mexico, there is no reason in the world why you can’t have a creative writing major jointly with something else. Sign language interpreting is an absolutely intense major that maxes out on its required credit hours, so it offers other elective courses that are “highly recommended.” And I still had time to double major in creative writing. Maybe you don’t know what else to major in. That’s fine, but you should be working or doing internships. That’s another hard truth—when everyone has a college degree, businesses are more interested in your work experience.
I want every one of you to succeed in your writing and to never give up on it. Just because I am in the career of interpreting doesn’t mean I have given up on writing. Quite the contrary, I’m giving it my best shot. But to have that shot, I had to be able to support myself financially. It broke my heart to see students in the creative writing program that were hedging all their bets on making it big as a writer. They had no fallback, and though their creative abilities were unique and inspiring, sometimes their tangible skills were lacking. If you’ve read my blogs, you probably already know I’m of the opinion that a creative writer could be a professional writer. Just like a mechanic knows the ins and outs of a car, writers should thoroughly understand and be skilled in their language’s syntax, lexicon, and semantics.
I guess it’s safe to say I’m all about balance. Would I suggest a writing degree? Yes. Do I think it’s absolutely necessary? No. Do I think a writing degree is everything you need to become a star writer? No. Not even a master’s degree will give you that. As much as you need to educate yourself, you also need to step out of your imagination and away from your computer every now and then and experience the world for what it is. Living is the best way to learn how to write.
By: Rachelle Clifford