Six impossible things

What education?

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.

  1. And now we know why I’m in grad school for Linguistics. It may be a bigger time commitment and a crazy balancing act, but lord knows it’s not being a receptionist at a walk in medical clinic. It provides the funds (good funds too, unlike being a receptionist, which paid less than minimum wage to start with), and it doesn’t make me miserable (most of the time. Unfortunately, students are just as nasty disease carriers as are sick people).

    Being in college was truly wonderful. I was entirely a dilettante, and took all sorts of classes, anthro, history, classics, religion, japanese. The more you know, the more you have to say. And the more I learn about writing, the more I’ve realized that essay writing and novel writing aren’t really all that different. The bare bones are the same. It’s about learning how to shape your ideas into words, words that will actually communicate those ideas. Not that easy. Any practice is good practice.

    I have heard – through word of mouth – that Ithaca College has a great writing program.

  2. I’m just now learning about the importance of considering writing as a small business — with all the financial decisions and planning that entails. I’d never thought of doing an MBA to help with it — though having just finished my PhD (in medieval studies) I think it’ll be a while before I’m ready (or can afford) to be back in school as a student! Still, I hadn’t thought about the problem of when royalties come in. It just goes to show why people talk about the importance of having multiple income streams, especially for the self-employed.

  3. That’s a great post. What parts of an MBA course of study are most useful to a professional writer?

    • Victoria – It’s only a problem if you don’t plan for it.

      J.P. – For me, it was mostly the financial stuff, but I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs (one of my favorite family stories is of the day one of my sisters, aged about seven or eight, came home from school confused about what a prophet was – she said she though it had something to do with whether you were making money, but that didn’t seem to be what Sister Agnes meant!). General management and an awareness of the big picture, too. I’m working on an overview series of posts, but it’ll be a while before I have them ready.

      Mary – Yup. You want a day job that doesn’t use the same brain cells that you use for writing, whatever that means for you. For some writers, that’s something completely different (for me it was financial analysis); other writers get synergy out of working as a journalist or an editor, and it’s the supposedly-different day jobs that actually use up the same energy. Whatever works.

  4. The day-job degree is the one I recommend, too.

    I would add as an additional requirement: try to pick a job that doesn’t involve too much writing, especially working with fiction. There are writers who manage, but it can be problem.

  5. It took me four years to figure this out. Not that I needed a day job, but that I needed a day job which I could be happy with being permanent. How I wish I had read this post five years ago!

    Please, please, please yes more posts the business-managing part. I know that’s a weakness of mine, and for sure an MBA is not in the picture for me.

  6. After a couple years in physics, I ended up with a history degree. I’ve never used it for one minute for anything actually in the field, but the research and writing skills I came out of it with have been tremendously useful in everything from the IT jobs to producing novels.

    Of course, it helps that I had some excellent history professors.

    For any aspiring writer, I’d say find something that you like and that makes you *think*, and go study that. Bonus points if you can make a living on it later, but you’d be surprised at what that might turn out to be.

  7. I am very much looking forward to that series of posts on the financials/business side of writing.

    I have achieved a career that is well paid and requires both few enough hours and little enough energy that I can still write. With drafts of two rather lousy novels under my belt, I have reason to hope that since the second one is not as bad as the first one, I will sometime in the next decade build the requisite skill to produce a publication worthy novel. I have a general idea of what better writing looks like, and I have a whole lot of excellent end product examples on my bookshelves.

    It would sure be nice to know more about the other aspects of the craft that, for some people, make it possible to write as a career instead of hobby or part time home business.

  8. I didn’t want to write until I was in grad school, and I didn’t want to have a fiction career until quite a while after that.

    Which means my undergrad degree is in physics, and my electives were in more physics, math, chemistry, and biology, and I got a master’s in physics…and then I started writing fiction and went to journalism school.

    I wish that when I was in college I’d taken more history, anthropology, sociology, etc courses (I took four history and one economics, everything else was math and science). On the other hand if I just made myself read more nonfiction I could build up a solid foundation anyway.

  9. One thing that being an English major *does* help with is… after grinding out word count for papers about material one detests or is bored by, grinding out word count for one’s own stuff can seem SO MUCH MORE FUN.

    On the other hand, a few English classes can probably accomplish the same thing, no matter what sensible major is taken.

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