Should You Get That Creative Writing Degree?

If you’re a Creative Writing major, you’ve gotten the question (or some variation of it): “What’s the point of that degree? You don’t need one to be a published writer.” And that’s true! You definitely don’t need a degree in Creative Writing to be a writer. Look at J.K. Rowling, who has a degree in French and Classics, or at Neil Gaiman, who didn’t go to college at all! Both are incredibly successful and talented authors, but neither has any “formal” academic training in Creative Writing. Even those who are successfully published try to dissuade writers from spending money on Writing programs (George Singleton, for example, who has a whole section in his book Pep Talks, Warnings and Screeds against writing programs — despite being a writing professor himself).

But Creative Writing programs are quite popular these days. Many high school students I’ve met have admitted that they wish to major in Creative Writing when they get to college. So the question remains: Is it a waste of time and money?

This is a tough topic for me to examine, since I just graduated from Canisius College with a degree in both English and Creative Writing (two of the “most useless” majors, according to many people). I like to think I didn’t just waste four years of my life and put myself in $40k+ of debt for no reason. Certainly having the degree doesn’t guarantee that I will ever be published, and even if I do get there someday, I probably won’t be popular or successful enough to pay off a big chunk of my student debt. I’ll need a stable career to do that, which is why I chose to pursue a Master’s in Library Sciences.

If you read my last post, you know I didn’t necessarily enjoy my time in the Creative Writing program, because Academia has a tendency to discourage students from writing fantasy or science fiction, and write more “literary,” “serious,” “realistic” fiction. As a result, I spent four years writing realistic stories I didn’t love writing and came out conditioned to dislike writing fantasy and science fiction; any time I tried to go back to writing fantasy or sci-fi, I would hear my professors in my head saying, “This stuff is dumb and childish and unoriginal, unworthy of being written,” and I would throw it out. (I am just now starting to get over that “conditioning,” and it’s still taking a lot of time. I look at my WIP all the time and think, “This is stupid, throw it out,” and it takes everything in my power to resist that urge.)

But do I regret getting that degree?

Of course not. I think it was money well spent. I learned a lot about characterization, about plotting, about dialogue, and about pacing that I never would have learned from a generic “how-to-write” book; I discovered my strengths (setting, dialogue, and surprisingly characterization, which I thought was my weak point) and my weaknesses (melodrama and pacing, especially in short stories); I learned things about the publishing industry, about public performance, and about life as a writer that isn’t discussed very often outside of the published writer’s world; and most importantly, I learned how to force myself out of the dreaded Writer’s Block (the trick is to enforce a strict deadline, at least in my case).

Even though at the beginning of every semester I had to calm myself as I listened to the professors drone on about how “genre fiction is limiting and unoriginal and should be avoided,” even though my eye twitched every time a professor proudly proclaimed, “I think [Harry Potter/The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit/etc.] is [childish/stupid/silly/boring], I’ve never read it, and I never will,” I still came out of the program feeling as if my writing had improved. I can see how I toned down my flare for the sentimental, for the melodrama, but can still deliver an emotional punch; I learned how to pick the most crucial of scenes and scrap the ones that weren’t so necessary. I learned, through taking poetry courses, how to make every word count. And, thanks to class critiques and forced public speaking, I gained a ton of confidence that I wouldn’t have found just writing on my own.

If you have the resources (that is, the money) and you find a program that you think might suit you, then yes, I would recommend getting a degree in Creative Writing. You’ll learn a lot about writing and about yourself, and (if you attend undergrad directly after high school) you’ll meet writers your own age and grow alongside them.

But I would also recommend finding something else to double major in. English was the easiest for me, since the course requirements for Creative Writing and English often overlapped at Canisius. But it’s also very possible to double major in something as different from Creative Writing as Animal Behavior or even Chemistry or Math. Having a double major — no matter what you major in originally — will give you an upper-hand when you apply for a job, since it makes you seem more well-rounded. Not to mention, writers need to do more than write all the time. You need to live life, to focus on something other than your writing every once in a while. Studying something other than writing will give you that opportunity.

Whatever you do, if you love to write but you feel torn between Creative Writing and some other, more “practical” major, do not just give up Creative Writing. If you love it, and if you have the time and money for college, why not spend it studying what you love? Minor in it, if you can’t fit the full major into four years. But do not torture yourself going to med school, or veterinary school, or pharmacy school because your parents are “making” you do it. (This goes for anyone, torn between any two majors. Even Engineering students are having a hard time finding jobs nowadays, so don’t waste your time doing something you can’t stand for the sake of a “stable” career.)

As I stated in my last post, I would recommend to look in detail when you search for a Creative Writing program to apply to. If you can’t find the course listings on the college’s website, with detailed descriptions of the classes offered, then email the professor who is head of the Creative Writing department and ask for a brochure if they have one, or perhaps even a course syllabus or two. Fantasy and sci-fi writers: I can tell you it won’t be easy finding a program that offers any courses in writing genre fiction. Like I’ve said, Academia favors “literary” fiction (that is, realistic fiction or poetry) over genre fiction, and it shows when you look into course descriptions.

If you can’t afford college or don’t want to take four or more years to study writing in a classroom setting, there are such things as writer’s workshops. I have personally never been to one, but I’ve looked into them before. If you have a day-job and you save up some money, you can always check Writer’s Digest for any upcoming workshops; WD is a trustworthy source for finding workshops that aren’t just scams. Many of the events are in NYC (and may cost you upwards of $2000, just a fair warning). They’ll be a few days long, or a few weeks, but you’ll likely get to share your work, give and take critique, and talk to professional, published writers about the industry. These are certainly not as expensive as a college program, but I think they could be just as useful if you feel that you need some “schooling.”

Grad school is a whole other story, and since I’m not in a grad school program for Creative Writing and have zero intention of attending one, I don’t feel I can offer much advice. Here’s what I DO know, from the mouths of my professors: “Don’t go to a grad school program unless you can get a full scholarship or a decent chunk of financial aid from the school itself,” “It’s useful if you want a few years just to focus on writing, but you will likely need a part-time job to support yourself,” “You’ll probably have a great time and meet a great mentor,” and, “They are INCREDIBLY difficult to get into.” So keep that in mind.

If you have any further questions, particularly about college programs, please feel free to comment below. I’ll do what I can to help.

As always, happy writing!

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