“It’s either education or elimination!”
– The Fox and the Hound (1981)
Recently I read a post from a blogger complaining that taking creative writing courses wasn’t inspiring her to write creatively in her spare time the way she did before college. All of her time and energy was being spent on writing for class, so she wasn’t as prolific in her extracurricular writing as she’d been in high school. She therefore came to the conclusion that she didn’t need a degree in creative writing to pursue it as a career.
As someone who did earn her degree in creative writing and wouldn’t be the writer she is today without that education, I took many, many deep breaths.
To answer the question posed in the title of this post simply: no, a degree in creative writing is not necessary to becoming a writer. J. K. Rowling earned her degree in French and Classics, Haruki Murakami studied Theater Arts, and Paulo Coelho attended law school. These three are only a small percentage of published authors without a formal degree in creative writing.
To answer the question truthfully: no, the degree itself is not necessary, but writers who educate themselves through some form of workshop or study program give themselves an advantage. Today, the publishing industry changes rapidly. Learning about how to write on a schedule and work with an editorial team is key to working well in the industry—something that requires experience over simply reading articles or posts like this one.
Not every hopeful writer can major in creative writing, true enough. However, creative writing education is not limited to the formal degree program. Here’s a quick overview on why creative writing classwork helps—and what I got out of my experience as a student!
Here’s an issue I—and many writers, I’m sure—had to deal with growing up: being The Writer. For as far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer, and throughout childhood and high school, I was penning new stories and planning new novels every day. My classmates knew how serious I was about it, so it could be hard to get constructive feedback on my peer reviews. I was blessed enough to have parents who encouraged my desire to go into the arts and to be accepted into a college with a strong creative writing program.
It was there that I discovered I was less special than I thought; I went from being The Writer to being one of about two hundred Writers who had been the go-to creative student in their respective high schools. The flowery descriptions and plot-disguised-as-dialogue I thought I’d been rocking in high school paled in comparison to what my upperclassmen were workshopping. If I wanted to be The Writer again, I was going to have to compete with hundreds of other students, study technique and style, and push myself past the basic plots I’d penned in the past.
The quality of my work is objectively better now that I’ve had the opportunity to work in a community of my peers and industry professionals. Having that academic setting helped me to learn to communicate with editors and other writers, as well as to understand how readers experience my work differently than I do. Having that feedback from fellow writers offers insight that will help on a whole other level. Writers can pinpoint word choices or scene settings and offer specific ideas on how to improve them, and they pick up on themes and literary techniques like it’s second nature. Putting your work under the magnifying glass can be scary; you really can’t predict how you’re going to respond when it’s your hard work, your characters, and your stories on the chopping block.
I didn’t just learn how to better my writing through the feedback others gave me; reading my classmates’ work made me view writing in a way I hadn’t had the opportunity to in high school. Those classes were my introduction to the professional writing world. Though we do compete with one another for the attention of agents and authors, writers also build tight-knit units with our peers and cheer on the success of our favorite soon-to-be-authors. We push each other, brainstorm together, and edit furiously as a team of artists ready to share their words with the world. Those classes, those classmates, and those professors motivated my writing and educated me about the inner workings of publishing as an industry in a way that no other media or research has or could.
Not everyone can afford to major in the arts or go to a school that offers creative writing specifically (many programs are English degrees with a focus in writing), but there are plenty of opportunities for learning with community centers, libraries, and independent bookstores. These venues often offer courses, meetings, and group programs for budding writers—a judgment-free zone to get creative together! Check out these locations in your community and see what options are available for you. If a writing workshop isn’t already available, check out my post on starting your own. The most important thing is that writers are given an outlet where they can work with their peers, so find the workshop that works best for you.
One last point from the original post that may concern readers is the person’s complaint that she was less prolific as a college writer than she was as a high school writer. While it depends on the individual, I would actually agree with this statement—but argue that I write fewer pages these days and am totally cool with it. In high school, yes, I wrote much more in volume, but many of those stories and characters had been done before, or weren’t fully envisioned. I didn’t pause to think about word choice or pacing, and I hardly ever outlined, instead going off of a vague notion of where my story would go. More than half of these manuscripts is my rambling my way to some sort of conclusion. There are novels in my desk that will never see the light of day. I’m glad that I wrote them, because I had to write those books to get to the new work I’m doing now, but I wouldn’t want to go back to those days. The five or ten pages I get out of a writing session today put my high school self’s twenty or twenty-five pages to shame.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to be part of a writing community that educates artists on how to interact with professionals and peers in the field. That’s the intention of this blog post I’m writing—to encourage other writers to find an outlet, academic or not, that fits their schedule and budget, and prepare themselves for one of the most competitive creative industries going.
Long story short, I’m grateful to have been a part of a workshop setting that improved my skills as a writer, and I highly encourage seeking out learning opportunities for those interested in writing professionally. What are some of your best writing education experiences, tips, or tricks? Let me know in the comments!