Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Proper Education

Today, I’m going to answer a question I get asked a lot. Well, I’m going to combine a few variations of it into one blog post. This is the question(s):

1 - “Did you go to school for Creative Writing?”
2 - “Do you have to have a degree in writing to get published?”
3 - “Have you taken classes in writing?”
4 - “Will you be my mentor?”

First, the short versions.

1 - No. I was a history major.
2 - No. It’s one way to get published, but not the only way. Not even the most common way.
3 - No. Well, not technically. More on that in a bit.
4 - No. But thanks for asking. I barely have enough time to make breakfast in the morning, but maybe this blog will count for something?

Now, the long version. No, I did not get a creative writing degree. I did try, once, to take a creative writing class at my college, but they told me my writing wasn’t promising enough and turned me away. I wasn’t crushed. I was a writer and I was going to learn how to write no matter what.

Yesterday, I was having my blood drawn for a physical, and the lady drawing my blood asked me about how I became a writer (because everyone enjoys a little career chit-chat as their life blood swirls into a collection of tubes). Did I go to school for it? Did I take classes? How did I know about the business? Was it anything like the X-Factor? As I tried to explain my process, she grew more convinced it was a happy accident and I realized that it sounded an awful lot like I just decided to become a writer and then got magically published in a cosmic lottery.

This, of course, does not happen.

And I think what I should have told her is this: You don’t need a creative writing degree, but you do need a writing education.

These are not necessarily the same thing.

Warning: For a brief moment, I’m going to get on a soap box. I don’t usually do that on the blog, especially when it’s anything that can be construed as even vaguely political. I don’t like pretending I know any better than anyone else how to solve the world’s problems. I’m just a girl who eats cookies for breakfast and thinks a ’73 Camaro is a perfectly reasonable business vehicle. However, when it comes to this topic, I think I’m qualified to talk about it.

The thing modern education has gotten really wrong is this: ignoring the fact that there are 4,000 ways to competency. 100,000 ways to competency. One million ways to competency. One of the dumbest things ever decided was that a piece of paper with a college name on it made one person’s skill set better than someone else’s.

That piece of paper often means something. But the lack of it often doesn’t.

It’s convenient to put your average muggle through four years of college and expect that they’ll come out the other side equally educated in a specific field, ready to join the workforce. But if you take 50 teens who all want to be history majors, for instance, and put them through four years of college, at the end, you will not have fifty equally-educated graduates. Because some of them will be slackers. Some of them will be naturally talented teachers, but terrible at remembering dates. Some of them will excel at research, but only about 14th century Scotland. Some of them will be great public speakers, but terrible writers. Some of them will be have spent their childhood learning everything that college was going to teach them and will emerge no more clever or skilled than they were at the beginning.

And some people will skip college and go on to be more successful than any of those grads.

How? How!? My sister read and chatted with me about OUTLIERS: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, he talks about the 10,000 hour rule — he postulates that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any field. I think this is key. You need to learn everything you can about not only writing, but reading, and everything you can find out about the industry and business. I would say that 10,000 hours of writing sounds about right. But I think that there are lots of ways to accomplish those hours. You can self teach. You can apprentice. You can take classes. You can workshop. You can get a writing critique partner. You can steal someone else’s brain. The only thing that is standard-issue about a writing education is that it must happen in order to be successful. If you want a piece of paper saying you did it, that’s your business, but no one else’s.

Here is my education. I found it this week while I was looking for my social security card. It was a folder of some of my writing from before the age of 17: each of those pieces of paper represents a novel I wrote back then. I spent several hours every
evening writing, and when I wasn’t writing, I was reading, and when I wasn’t reading, I was living — riding horses, showing dogs, having a band, making trouble. You have to have something to write about, after all.

Writing at 17

I reckon before I post this, I should emphasize that I have nothing against degrees in Creative Writing. If you think you need one to keep you motivated or to structure your education, go for it. But it’s not the way I learn. And I’d wager in some cases it can do more harm to an introverted creative person’s psyche than good. But the most important thing is: they’re pretty much invisible when it comes to getting your book published. Your education, however you manage it, is the process: the book is the result. Agents, editors, readers: they don’t care how you got there, just that you did.
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