Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Go study what you want.

If you want to be a physicist, you go to college and study physics. If you want to be a psychologist (and why on earth would you want to?) you go to college and study psychology. If you want to become an historian, a musician, a geneticist, that's what you study at school.

So what if you want to be a writer? Does this mean you should study Creative Writing at university?

Australian author Justine Larbalestier says no.

For the most part, I agree with her.

Of all the useless classes I ever took at university, the Creative Writing ones were the second most useless ones ever. (Archaeology takes top billing in my book.) My CW classes were full of pretentious snobs who, if you didn't write true Lit-ra-choor, you were not worthy to muddy their boots. They were cliquish, stuck-up and narrow-minded.

Not good if you wrote genre stuff (like, say, fantasy or romance).

So I spent two hours a week of every quarter (for a year and a half) suffering the toffee-nosed abuse of people who thought they were beyond elite.

If I hadn't already been published, if I didn't already have a writing mentor, and if I wasn't so in love with storytelling, those classes would have turned me off writing for good. I can't think of a single one that didn't make me cry.

I describe my CW classes as the second most useless, because despite the abuse, I did learn one useful thing: the Milford Method. Hallelujah.

So, should a bright-eyed young aspiring author major in CW?

No. Really, there is no need.

In fact, it is better if they don't. Instead, I say to them, go study something--anything--else. It'll benefit you in the long run. First, it'll give you something to write about. Second, it'll give you a broad interest base. Third, you'll probably gain marketable skills; after all, all writers have a Day Job to support themselves while they write. Fourth, you probably won't suffer the abuse many poor genre writers do in CW courses. Fifth, we won't lose you to the Dark Side.

Really, unless you're getting a specialised job, nobody cares what you got your degree in. So go be a history or an economics major.

So you've earned a BA or BS in Underwater Basket Weaving. Cool. Still wanna study CW? Well, that's what Master's Degrees are for.

Okay, you don't need a MA to write and be published. There's only two purposes behind pursuing an MA: one, getting to add more letters after your name and two, being able to indulge yourself in writing for a few years. That alone makes it worth getting.

Another (side) benefit of an MA, it looks good on your application for grant money to sit home and indulge yourself in writing.

Other than that, it's unnecessary.

What? You still wanna be a writer? Yeah, okay. But why do so many young people have the mistaken impression that one must go to college? That's not how a writing career works.

It's an old-fashioned apprenticeship. You simply sit down and do. If you're lucky, you can study under the guidance of a master (aka writing mentor, like I did), and belong to various writing groups, both face-to-face and online. But for the most part, it's up to you to seek out the knowledge and the feedback.

And like an old-fashioned apprenticship, you spend some time as an apprentice (developing your craft, finding your voice, collecting rejection slips) then you become a journeyman (developing your craft, honing your voice, occasionally getting published) and then you can become a master (developing your craft, indulging your voice, regularly getting published).

You don't need a formal college education to do that. In fact, most writers I know didn't study CW at university.

If you want to get a CW degree, I can't stop you. But please realise there's a big, wonderful world out there. Go study what you want.

In the end, you'll still be a writer.

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