Sunday, February 3, 2013

So, really, do you need to go to college to be a better writer? My musings.

Well, the problem with college, I think, is that everyone thinks you’re stupid if you don’t go to college, but people think you’re even stupider when you do go to college and choose to study creative writing. Or art history. Or any field in the humanities.

Now, I don’t know about master’s degrees. I’m talking about the good, old fashioned B.S. or B.A. Maybe someday I’ll attack grad school. But like many in my position, it was about all I could do to scrape up enough for an undergrad degree. So, let’s muse about that.

When I signed up for a Language Arts Non-Teaching degree, most people would say, “What, you’re not going to teach?” I would shrug. Nope, don’t want to teach. Then, I’d get a little swagger, a little head tilt, a little grin, and the belittling question, “Well, what are you going to do to make a living then?”

Well, my honest answer was, I’m not going to college to get a job. I’m going to college to study literature, as long as I get scholarships and work three jobs to pay for everything and not go in debt. Then I’ll go get a job that probably won’t need a degree. But since that’s not a very socially correct answer I would say, “I want to work in journalism.” That usually shut the nay sayers up. “Oh, I didn’t think of that. You could be a reporter or an editor.” Yeah. Or I could work at a grocery store and write novels in my spare time.

Right now I am also a part time library clerk working on my public librarian certification, which, coupled with my bachelor’s, does open up a few more job opportunities for the future. The only reason I’m not working in journalism is because I live in an itty bitty town 60 miles from anywhere in any direction and if I did take a part time reporter position at any of the small local papers, I’d still be working part time at the grocery to pay bills. Until I can have access to working in a bigger city, I won’t have the opportunity to apply to a job “in my field.”

At any rate, I never wanted to work in my field in the traditional aspect. I wanted to write books. So, here we are. Did I need those 5 years at college to write books?

I went into college right out of high school. The first years, I bumbled around and kind of just did whatever was right in front of my face. Short story class, I wrote short stories. Poetry class, I wrote poetry. Modern Drama, I wrote plays. You get the idea.

Like I said, I took 5 years to get my B.S. though I tacked on a hefty psychology minor. The first three and a half years I was pretty much input, output. Memorize whatever was needed for the tests, keep one or two assignments I thought were randomly interesting, and sell back most of my textbooks. Sure, I was being exposed to a lot of new and interesting things, and I was learning and growing, but it wasn't until the end of my junior year and the start of my first senior year that I started putting any of it together.

Still, it amazed me how many people in my capstone English class, by far the most deep-reaching in critical analysis of literature, would say things like, “Well…I didn't like that book... that was a bad book,” and “I liked this book a lot, this was a good book.”

Which I suppose is just evidence of the myth of college, that college makes you a professional. College makes you an expert. College is what you need to succeed. This is not true. You make your degree. Buying books on literary criticism are utterly useless if you don’t read them. Skipping or sleeping through modern novel class will never give you insight into the structure of novels. You can say Shakespeare class is hard all you want. Actually reading it is harder.

Do I think there are talented writers without school, right off the bat, from the time they start writing? Yes, I do. But no one can write more than one piece and not start to learn about what they're doing. In various writers groups I've been in, I'm always impressed at how many good pieces are shared, and one piece from someone who has never studied or practiced writing can be just as striking as a piece written by someone with an MFA in creative writing.

And I'm not exaggerating. In fact, sometimes the novice has better pieces than the “pro.” The interesting thing, though, is when a person starts working on the piece, you start to see where it falls short. Where it needs work. When the sparkle of the ideas fade, the structure comes out and authors either hit or miss with rewrites. So, in a way, I think it takes either talent or a lot of work to get to point A, but as writers, we need to study and practice to get to point B, C, D, and E.

To do that, you must read and write, a lot. Which is basically what you do in college. I was restricted to swift paces set by semester classes (or sometimes half semester classes) of 8-16 weeks where we would read 5-8 novels, countless short stories and other materials. One week, my heavy week in all three of my lit classes, I had 800 pages assigned Monday, due Wednesday.

This was great, it made me read things I wouldn’t have sought out myself, maybe never even found on my own. The downside of that is I had to read so much of what was assigned, if something sparked my interest, I had no time to explore it, savor it. If I spotted a spark and wanted to build fire, well, too late, we have a quiz on chapters 1-5 of the next big thing.

I was especially a sucker for this in my psychology classes. In each class I had to write a paper. I would get the idea approved and go nuts, purchasing used books on the topic, so after I wrote my paper, I could continue to learn about the subject until satisfied. Well. That never worked. I would barely get through half of one book before the paper was due, so I would scramble to finish the paper then toss the books aside to revisit later. The pile of books I had to read by graduation was phenomenal, and my interests had become more specific, so many of the non-fiction books I thought would be epic ended up being quite sub par because I hadn't done enough looking into them. As for the fiction, well, I've been dying to read The Bluest Eye for 5 years now, and it's still sitting on my shelf.

Now I'm free to read what I'm interested when I'm interested in it. Which is why I've once again pushed Toni Morrison back to read other books I feel like reading now. My interests still tend to be faster than my reading pace, but at least I do get to the books I want to read, and write what I want to.

My first year out of college, I knew I needed to practice writing novels. So I challenged myself to write a novel in a year. It took two, but I’m very happy with how much I learned on my own. In fact, I think I learned more about writing when writing on my own than when I was in school. But without the foundation, I might not have been in the position to make such strides.

Honestly, I feel that I'm just now reading fiction from both the feeling and thinking sectors or my brain. I can get knocked out with brilliance and also appreciate the technical aspects. In psychology and sociology, I'm retaining the concepts and putting ideas together into coherent arguments. It's great that I can finally hold my own in debates, even if they are just friendly, or on facebook. But it gives me encouragement that I can write social commentary books/essays, the goal I had in mind when I added that psych minor.

I’d like to think my bumbling years weren’t worthless. If anything, we all have the bumbling years, whether we’re in college or not. Ultimately, I think writing well takes time, and practice in that time. I had a lot of opportunities to challenge myself in college and produce pieces I may never have otherwise. Some were excellent. Some were absolutely terrible.

The thing is, however, I spent a lot of time writing my own work, working on pieces that had nothing to do with the assignments or papers I had to write. So in many ways, now, it’s a lot like in college. I go to work, I do my librarian certification assignments as I am required, But in my spare time I’m always trying to write my own stuff, read what I want, and better my craft on my own.

One last thought. In both college and now out “on my own,” I participated in writing workshops. I have to admit, these are invaluable for me as a writer. Our little group that meets at the library has been wonderful. Being able to share a piece and receive feedback from a variety of viewpoints is such a great resource. And listening to someone who has worked very hard and made an impeccable piece of work means you glean a lot of insight for yourself. And I learned just as much from college centered workshops as the outside groups, set up by people who simply love to write.

So I don’t have a simple answer for anyone who wants to know if they need college to be a good writer. Ultimately, I think you need to ask yourself this: Is your bookshelf (physical or digital) overflowing with books? Have you read most of them? If a friend interrupts a free afternoon of yours will they find you reading or writing? Do you read and write on your breaks at work, or in the doctor’s office waiting room? College or not, you have to actually do the things you want to accomplish. You must work at it to be an expert. Without the work, degree or not, nothing else matters, because you won’t hold up in the real world. You won’t have readers. Fancy letters after your name aren’t any good if readers put the book down.

So in conclusion, get busy! Go write something!

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