On Higher Education

Today I had an online conversation with a woman who observed that I did not have a Creative Writing or English degree and immediately started talking down to me as if I must not know the first thing about being a writer.

And yet an acquaintance who runs a magazine says that just about every author in the slush pile from a person who mentions having a writing-related degree in their cover letter turns out to be complete crap at writing.  (Colleen Lindsay and Nathan Bransford agree that these folks frequently query poorly or send surprisingly amateur work.)

I majored in Music Education for a year and a half.  Then I majored in Elementary Education and finished that degree.  I considered going for an English degree for about half a second.  I decided against it for many reasons, but the most important one was this:

As a music major, I observed that being classically trained at the University level was sucking all the fun out of singing for me.  I didn’t like that teachers had so much control over how I had to approach music to get a good grade, and since it wasn’t up to me which teachers I learned from, this extremely influential position could have been (and often was) occupied by people I didn’t agree with, didn’t like, or didn’t respect.

I realized that majoring in English or Creative Writing might well do the same thing to me.  Teachers attempt to mold you, and most to all of what they say could very well be valuable.  But since my experience in music taught me that my teachers were going to impose their world views on me in one of the most absolutely subjective fields on the planet, I didn’t want that to happen to my writing.  I didn’t want to be force-fed someone else’s voice.  I didn’t want a teacher to mold me.  I wanted to mold myself.

During my senior year of high school I took Advanced Placement English, and I was consistently one of the best students.  My teacher frequently used my papers as examples during review.  I took the end-of-year exam and was one of only five students in the school to get a perfect score, entitling me to two college English credits.  I had to pay attention, but I didn’t have to strain myself.  I didn’t ultimately learn any of what I needed to know to ace that class from the teacher himself.  But even with that, I still had so far to go before I could really be exceptional.  Beating the pants off other high school kids should be easy for someone intending to make a career out of writing, but I was nothing special when it came to people in the field, and I KNEW it.

I just didn’t want to chance handing my creativity to an academic institution to sculpt.  My hat is off to any writer who’s been through post-high-school writing instruction and managed to emerge with their writing voice intact, not shaped mindlessly into a parrot for some teacher’s perspective.  And my hat is off to any writing teacher who can foster students’ voices without making them latch onto their own.  It takes a special kind of teacher to teach a student where to look for inspiration and voice (rather than “how to do” them), and it takes a special kind of student to resist the temptation to consider pleasing the teacher more important than growing as a writer.  After my experience as a voice student, I truly feel I’m not that kind of student who could survive formal education intact.  That’s the decision I made for my work and my life.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing that path.  But if anyone tries to tell you that you’ve failed to meet some kind of Writer Prerequisite because you haven’t had writing classes (college level or otherwise), ignore them.  They’re more focused on the prestige of Being a Writer than they are focused on why they do it.

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