We’ve reached part three in our series on writing degrees, and it’s my turn to share my two cents on the subject. First, a little about me. I have a BA in creative writing and psychology from UNM. Why the combo? Writing is what I want to do with my life and, for a time, I thought I might also want to enter the world of psychology as a counselor. While the latter is currently on the backburner, I’m now pursuing writing full time in three fashions: my own fiction, this magazine, and as a technical writer. The only one currently paying me is my work as a technical writer, but it’s not about the money, at least not for me (more on this later).
While pursuing my degree, I got a really great internship as an admin assistant in which I snatched every bit of writing work I could; it was my goal to somehow change this admin job into a technical writing position, God willing. Long story short, after showing what I could do, I was offered a job as a tech writer, which I now do from home. This was in part due to my skill and the need for it at my company, in part due to my degree, and completely due to God’s provision. Every writer’s story/day job is different, but as my story shows, your education and early career years are equally important and formative. I tried to make the most of both.
So enough about how I ended up where I am. My goal in this post is to focus on the ups and downs of a creative writing degree for those of you considering a higher education in writing. I’m glad I chose this path, but it’s certainly not for everyone. I’ll present the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of getting a creative writing degree, drawing from my own experiences to illustrate these various points. I hope it helps you in your decision-making process.
Teaches you the fundamentals of writing.
The most obvious benefit of getting a degree in anything—you learn. Assuming the program at your college of choice is worth a damn, it will teach you the basic elements of writing: voice, setting, character, and the like. Even if you’ve written for years, you must study these elements. Not studying them is like a chef throwing ingredients together without knowing what each one tastes like, how they balance each other out, praying the dish will turn out edible. Master the basics. Learn the rules before you break them.
Gives you practice at critiquing and receiving critiques.
This “good” trait is coated in a crusty exterior of vulnerability, with a gooey center of annoyance. It’s like eating your least favorite vegetable, but it’s oh so healthy. First, you learn how it feels to share your work with others. Second, you learn how to deal with all the feelings of sharing your work with others. Third, you learn tact, both by practicing it yourself and seeing others display a horrifyingly small amount. For more on critique groups/workshops, see my previous blog post on the subject.
Exposes you to a lot of bad writing.
I would argue that the majority of the general population of readers don’t know a bad book when it mouth breathes on their neck. Or, perhaps they know they don’t like it, but they can’t say why. As much as you benefit from being around fellow writers in college, some of them will put out terrible writing. Read it. Devour it and then let it pass through you. Learn why it doesn’t work and be able to put it into words. This will lessen the chances of you putting out equally terrible writing.
Educates you about the industry (hopefully).
I’ll reiterate hopefully here. It’s crucial to understand the industry in which you want to work, and college can educate you about it. However, I say “hopefully” because for one thing, the publishing industry is constantly changing. Hopefully your professors are caught up on the current trends. For another thing, not every writing program offers courses on the industry, and you could emerge feeling equipped to write but lost as to what to do with it afterward. My college offered a publishing class with a guy who knew a few things, but was dreadfully uniformed on current trends—I discovered this after graduating and looking into the industry on my own time.
Provides publishing opportunities.
Universities have lit mags that are often run by students and faculty, with the goal of publishing students past and present. Additionally, there may be scholarship opportunities and contests for student writers. Take advantage of these opportunities. I had a few pieces published in college, and it was a good learning experience. It was a cool feeling to see and hold my work in print, and it was also valuable for me to learn that not all magazines are created equal. One that published me didn’t consult me at all for edits they made, and they spelled my name wrong. Face palm. Still, a good learning experience. I also got to participate in a contest, win some cash, and read my work at readings—all valuable experiences.
Requires you to read. A lot.
You’ll read both for writing classes (books on craft, short stories, etc.) and, because you’re an English major, you’ll read for literature classes (longer stuff like novels). I argue this is a good thing, but sometimes it can be overwhelming—Melissa and I often took classes together, and one time she pointed out that we had over 200 pages of reading to do for a class (that’s ONE class) over the weekend. It can feel overwhelming at times, but it’s good for you. Plus, you master the art of skimming.
Allows you to meet other writers.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes feel weird as a writer. Like this can’t be a real career and I’m a nut job, sitting in PJs at my computer, tapping little plastic squares that make words come out in pseudo coherent sentences to tell a story and calling it my “job.” If you’re in a writing program, you won’t feel so alone. You’ll see actual faces of people pursuing the same thing you are, taking it seriously, and (in the best circumstances) supporting one another. You might even find a group you bond with for life, and feel just a little less crazy.
College costs money, obviously. You’ll need to decide if the money is worth it to you. Make a pros and cons list for you personally. If the money is too much, certainly look into scholarships and financial aid. If it’s still too much, study writing on your own. Get involved in a critique group, which you can often find online. Read all you can online about writing and publishing. You don’t have to get a degree to learn, and you certainly don’t have to get a degree to be considered a real writer.
Doesn’t make you much money.
This was my biggest guilt feeder in college. My logical brain whispered with upturned lip, “This degree isn’t going to get you a six figure job. You’re not going to make a great living.” And most likely, that’s true. There are some areas of writing that will make you a pretty penny, but they’re the exception to the rule. I decided that money was less important to me than doing something I love. I didn’t need an extravagant lifestyle; I don’t care too much about “stuff.” You’ll have to decide for yourself what’s most important.
Restricts what you can write.
If you’re a novel writer, odds are you won’t be able to take a novel-writing class in college. Some may offer one, and certainly many master’s degree programs offer them. But for your basic BA in writing, you’ll likely be restricted to writing short pieces. Short stories, short play scripts, short screenplays—these are the things I wrote in college, even though I considered myself a novelist. It’s annoying, but at the same time, I developed skills writing short that I wouldn’t have developed by writing long. It helps you find your story quicker, craft language intentionally, and say a ton by saying very little. Regardless, it’s a bit of a bummer for us long writers, at least initially.
Exposes you to egos.
So, you know that exposure to bad writing I talked about under the pros above? Unfortunately, an awful lot of those who write terribly have an ego equally big as their work is bad. It’s an ugly mix—hard to watch and harder to stomach. There will also be really amazing writers, the kind who read something in class and the mini you inside your gut wishes madly that you’d written it. Lots of these talented folks have fat, steaming, ugly egos too. Be prepared to deal with pride.
Exposes your own pride.
Those ugly egos I just mentioned? Yeah, you might have one too, or at least the potential for one (we all do, don’t we?). If you’ve never seen it before, prepare yourself; it’s an uncomfortable realization. And be prepared to tame it. This is for the benefit of your sanity, for the sake of your colleagues and loved ones, and for the health of your career. You must not let the pride beast win. Check out my blog series on pride in the arts. Hopefully it helps. As a side note, you should have pride in your work, but there is a difference between having confidence and being overconfident. Love your work, but die daily to pride.
Allows you to meet other writers…some of whom are batshit crazy.
Yes, that pro of meeting a bunch of writers and feeling less alone also flows into the ugly list. You’ll meet a lot of other writers, and sometimes they’re nut jobs, or at least extremely quirky. A smattering of those I met in college: the stream of consciousness guy who vomits dream drizzle on the page and scoffs when you don’t “get” it; the girl who wears only vintage clothes and carries her manuscripts in a faded, yellow leather suitcase; the girl who speaks every word of a simple, regular conversation with all the intonation of reading a prize-winning poem. You may start to wonder if you’re equally weird. And you’ll keep wondering. I mean, you are at least a little weird, right? You’re a writer.
Do you have any specific questions or concerns about writing degrees? Ask away in the comments or on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Bottom line—do what’s right for you. Degree aside, if you love to write, then you sure as hell better write.
By Madeleine Mozley