This is the time of year when a lot of high school students are thinking about college, and as a consequence, I’ve had several earnest requests for information about the best places to go to school, what to major in, etc. Since I usually figure that what one person is brave enough to email and ask about, many others are interested in, here are some of my thoughts.
First off, I’m not a teacher; I’m a writer (that is, I make my living writing). That means that my knowledge and judgment of programs, workshops, classes, etc. is a) fairly limited, and b) strongly skewed toward the practical. By limited, I mean that I have a poor-to-middling knowledge of the programs and workshops in my state, because some of them have asked me to speak at them. Beyond that – I can name all of four workshops and one graduate program outside Minnesota. All four of the writing workshops are genre-focused (specifically in SF/F); the graduate program is the Iowa Writing Workshop, which is the premier literary MFA program in the country, and undoubtedly familiar to pretty much every editor who’s been around for longer than ten minutes.
Basically, this means I am not ever going to be able to tell people which college(s) are the best choice for writers. I can recommend the Clarion workshops – Clarion and Clarion West – but those are all of six weeks. Viable Paradise is only one week. None of the websites mention academic credit at first glance, though the Clarions are associated with universities and I believe that they did offer course credit at one time.
None of that is going to help anyone pick a college or a major.
Which brings me to b) – the fact that my knowledge and judgment in this area skews toward the practical. This is based on something I’ve said many times before: writing is a skills-based profession. In a lot of careers, a degree is the credential that lets the folks hiring you know that you have a certain minimum level of knowledge in the field. Writing, however, is a skills-based discipline and a product-oriented business. Editors don’t give two whoops what someone’s credentials are; they care whether the story in front of them is a good one, and they can tell that by reading it.
Of the professional writers I know, roughly one-third did not graduate from college, another third have degrees in something unrelated (i.e. NOT an English or Creative Writing degree), and the final third have a college degree in English or Creative Writing (and I should mention here that this third weighs in heavily in favor of English Lit – I think I only know two professional writers with a CW major). That’s roughly two-thirds of professional writers who don’t have an English or other writing-related degree.
This is, of course, a very unscientific sample. It’s also colored by the fact that I fall into Group #2 – my own degrees are a bachelors in Biology and a Masters in Business Administration. (The MBA was hands down the best thing I ever did for my writing career; far too few of the starry-eyed teenagers determined to Become A Writer ever stop to think that this means they are going to be running a business.)
Nevertheless, I think it’s obvious that writing skills can be successfully self-taught (for at least two-third of the pros I know, anyway). It should also be apparent that there isn’t one typical, clear educational pathway toward being a writer. My personal preference and recommendation is therefore for would-be writers to major in something that’s not English or Writing.
I have two reasons for this: first, it’s all material anyway, and it’s a lot easier to pick up writing skills through self-study and practice than it is to do chemistry experiments or study ancient Greek history in-depth on your own.
Second, writing for a living nearly always requires a long, slow startup. It takes most people years to finish their first novel, and more years to get it published, and one has to eat in the meantime. Even once one has begun selling, it takes more years to fill up the writing income pipeline, and a lot of discipline to keep it full. One doesn’t want to suddenly run out of money because five years ago one had plenty coming in and so didn’t write anything for much too long a time.
All of which boils down to needing a day job for at least a few years, and it’s a lot easier if the day job is something one enjoys and that pays better than working at Wal-Mart or waiting tables. Such jobs are never easy to come by, particularly in the current job market, but majoring in something other than Creative Writing is at least a step in the right direction.
The one exception to the above is that if one wants to teach as one’s backup job, especially at the college level, you will need that MFA. Not as a writing credential; as a teaching credential. Quite a few mainstream and literary writers seem to do quite well with the teacher/writer combination – the summers give them a solid three months to work on their writing, and teaching for the rest of the year pays the bills.
Writing is a career for the long haul. It takes discipline, an ability to live with uncertainty, and some serious budgeting and planning skills (because royalties only get paid twice per year, and whatever you get has to last until the next payment cycle). What it doesn’t take is any particular educational background.
Which I’m afraid isn’t much help to the folks trying to make college plans, but that’s writing for you.