Majoring in Creative Writing and other questions

Readers questions are pouring in!

Many folks are asking about one of my responses to Katrina’s questions earlier in the week about majoring in Creative Writing in college.

I wrote: Don’t major in Creative Writing, but take some of the classes if the professor has a good reputation with the other students.

This made some people – those majoring in Creative Writing – nervous. So I expanded on my opinion:

My concern is that too many colleges give students the impression that a degree in Creative Writing will nearly guarantee them a lifetime of publishing contracts and a life of ease.

It does not work that way.

If you are fortunate enough to have great professors, your chances of developing your writing skills to the point where you could be published are increased, there’s no doubt about that. But there are a lot of terrible creative writing professors out there. Lately, I’ve talked to several 20-somethings who are bitter and disillusioned because the degree has not translated into anything but rejection letters.

So if it makes you happy, go for it. But do so with your eyes open.

I’d like to add something else to all the high school students out there who want to become authors. I think the single most important thing you can do for your writing career is to spend time living in a different country. Take a gap year and volunteer your services abroad. Or just travel and talk to people. And then come home. You need to get away from the world in which you were raised in order to gain some perspective on your experiences there. Your writing will be stronger and more interesting once you gain that perspective. IMHO.

Were any of you Creative Writing majors? What’s your opinion about this?

On MySpace, a reader asks: “Are you sure you didn’t write symbolism and themes into your books? Because My english teacher seemed pretty hung up on the fact that I could read Speak three times in two weeks without finding some deep, hidden meaning. In fact, I had to write Not one, but two essays about it.
Well, I know I really Love your books.
I don’t search for deeper meanings, becase frankly, I like the Message at the very top.
Can I print Out your myspace and Give it to my English I teacher?”

By teaching you about the uses of symbolism in literature, your teacher is giving you a couple of extra tools that can make reading more fun. I think the symbolism that is important is the symbolism a reader finds in the story. It doesn’t matter what the author tried to stick in there. I’m sorry that the essay writing was painful, but I’m glad you liked the book.

K saw the SPEAK movie on Lifetime this weekend and wrote: “All I really have to say is… you’re my freakin hero! Well, not really… but that’s my way of saying I enjoy the small taste of your work that I have sampled. I’ve honestly never heard of you or your books before, but Speak came on the TV just now and is probably about halfway through and I love it.

It’s everything I think but can never say… Because… people just don’t get it. It’s good to know I’m not the only one with a bitter, sarcastic, cynical look at society’s stupid unwritten rules of communication.

So I haven’t read your book, so I don’t know if these quotes are in there, but they are in the movie and are awesome.

“All that crap you hear on TV about communication and expressing feelings… is a lie. No one really cares what you have to say.”

“Why couldn’t he just say what he meant? Would they pin a scarlet letter to his chest? ‘S’ for Straightforward?”

“Once you get through this “life sucks” phase, I’m sure lots of people will wanna be your friend. But for right now, I don’t think we should have lunch together.”

That’s enough, I guess. You wrote the book, you know what you said, you get the point.

You don’t have to answer me back. You’re busy. That’s cool. But I pretty much had to tell you I love Speak.”

I’ve had some great letters about TWISTED recently – I think I’ll share them tomorrow.

In closing, many congratulations and all the respect in the world to the Lady Vols of Tennessee and Coach Pat Summitt (whom I adore) for winning the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship last night.

15 Replies to “Majoring in Creative Writing and other questions”

  1. In one of her essays, Katherine Paterson talks about that dreaded moment when each of her daughters returned from college for the first time, after starting English 101. Each daughter would ask, “All that symbolism stuff in books — do the writers mean to put it in there.” And she’d reply, “Not if they’re any good.” A bit tongue in cheek, but a great answer.

  2. Well, I’m currently a creative writing major (graduating in June), but I never exactly went into it with the expectation of becoming a writer – not the sort with endless publishing contracts, at least. I did it because I love writing, and I want a career that involves writing (I’d actually rather go into editing, which is probably just as hard to break into). However, I have the pragmatism to know that paying off my student loans takes priority over any dreams of publishing a best-selling novel.

  3. Thank you for the advice about the gap year. I kind of wanted to take a year off between high school and college, but I knew if I did I would have a harder time getting back into the whole school thing. So after college I’m definitely taking time off before grad school. I’d like to do Peace Corps or something to that effect. Do you have any suggestions as to good volunteer organizations abroad? I’m not really interested in teaching English because I don’t think I’d be that great of a teacher… lol.

  4. Yay for happy fan letters! πŸ˜€ Those are really nice; you deserve them.

    I’m a creative writing as part of my double, but I don’t know if I count. My choice of CW as a major is a calculated move to show the med school admissions committee that I have non-science interests. And because I like to write, but…tbh, if I wasn’t going into medicine, I’d major in something else and take CW classes, like you said. I like to be well-rounded, and what you learn in your OTHER major can provide great novel fodder!

  5. A journalist for the AJC told me once that an English degree is one of the most useful degrees out there. You can use it as a springboard, building up into specific areas. This was about six years ago when I was a junior in high school with plans of becoming a journalist myself, and he was trying to dissuade me from getting a degree in journalism.

    I will end up with a degree in mass communication this May, but his advice didn’t fall entirely on deaf ears. I added a International Relations major, so that if my pursuit of public relations fails, I have a secondary degree to fall back on.

    I think that is the key with any field that, traditionally, doesn’t require a degree. Study it, but study something else, too. So, go for that English degree with a Creative Writing specialization, but maybe back it up with a degree in psych or IR.

  6. I kind of feel like I learned lots of things in college, but how to write wasn’t one of them. I learned how to read more deeply; I filled my brain with all sorts of ideas that gave me things to write about. But the learning how to write part came from me going off, away from everyone else, and just writing and rewriting and training myself to be better.

    So I’m inclined against majoring in creative writing, as an undergrad, too. I kind of feel like you can (and eventually have to) learn to write on your own (with the help of good readers and critiquers and ultimately editors), and that the real value of college is all the other stuff you can learn while you’re there.

    And everything you learn fuels your writing, ultimately. I’d say go to college and learn all the crazy, interesting stuff you can, in whatever directions you feel pulled.

  7. As a creative writing student…

    I’m currently a senior creative writing minor and I hope to get my MFA when I graduate. However, I know that I am not guranteed success as a writer just because of this. I don’t think students should take a CW course just because it could help them be successful. I think it should be more about the student wanting to write and create and learn more about the craft rather than a “I’m majoring in Creative Writing so I will be published sort of thing.”

    My professor is a big help in this. She never promises us tht we are going to write the next great American Novel and never leads us on about how tough it is to make it as a writer. So you are correct if the professor is great than go for it, you will not be disappointed, just don’t get too caught up in the whole being a famous writer idea.

  8. I got a degree in creative writing before MFA/BFA programs became popular. Thousands of times (no exaggeration), I’ve lamented that fact. As Laurie suggested, the degree forced me into some classes where the professor was not a good teacher and not a good writer. I’ve had terrific writing teachers since then, but none of them were in my degree programs.

    My advice, if ever asked, would be to major in something that leads to a decent career, explore a wide variety of experiences, and attend intensive workshops with editors and authors who are currently publishing.

  9. Twisted

    I wrote to you a while ago (February 15, about my brother (13 years old) reading Twisted. I asked if you thought it would be appropriate for his age, and you said that you wouldn’t hesitate to hand it to a thirteen year old and asked me if I’d let you know what he thought about it. And I’m sorry this response is so late but the last two months have been really busy for me, but I do want to let you know what he thought. He said that he liked it because it was true and some parts were very funny and because it was a story about something that could really happen. I think it’s the longest book he’s ever read and I could tell he enjoyed it when I walked past his room one night before bed and saw him reading instead of watching tv. His favourite scene was the one where Tyler confronted hid dad. He also said, “I’m glad me and dad aren’t like that” and has a clearer idea of what high school is really like. It was so nice to actually talk to my brother about books. You should be very proud Laurie Halse Anderson, Twisted made my brother appreciate books and literature and how meaningful words can be. He finally understands why I read.

  10. While I was going through college, I never realized my courses and degree in advertising would also translate into fiction writing. (At that point, though, I never considered writing novels.)However, I especially appreciate my university’s approach to the journalism degree, one that requires students to take a broad variety of classes outside the core journalism curriculum. The thinking is that if you don’t know about the world, then how can you write about it?

  11. Re: Twisted

    You are so sweet. Thank you, thank you for taking the time to write again and let me know about your brother’s reaction to the book.

    I am feeling so good about this, I am at a loss for words. I think I’ll just sit and glow for a while.

  12. I back you completely on the creative writing thing. I’m concentrating in it, but my actual degree is called English Writing and Rhetoric. I did it b/c I couldn’t think of anything else to major in. Also, I think I should point out that I haven’t overly enjoyed any of my CW classes. There are a variety of reasons for this which I will not get into at the moment. Suffice to say that you can love creative writing but hate taking classes in it. Of course, this is not to say that I don’t want criticism and feedback. I NEED IT. But there are so many other (and possibly better) ways to get it than through a degree. I’m really really really glad that I’m only concentrating, and not majoring, in CW, b/c I’d be up a creek if I had. Instead, I’m doing a lot of technical/business/revising/editing classes, all of which are about ten times more useful. If you’re going to get any kind of instruction in creative writing, half of what you get out of it will be because of luck. You can get bad profs and peer reviewers and feedback just as easily as you can get good. It just depends on who’s in the class and who teaches it and how familiar they are with the genre you’re trying to write in.

    Basically, I have no illusions about making a living as a creative writer any time soon. Or ever. Instead, I’m hoping to find a company that needs someone with good professional writing skills (which I am allegedly developing) and design experience. That’s another thing that I’d add–if you have an eye for design, take some classes in that too, b/c if you can design AND write documents, you’re even better off. Plus, design is fun. πŸ˜€ So, all of that will help me pay gas and rent, while I write in some of my free time. At least, that’s the plan.

    Annnnnnnyways. That was very long. πŸ˜›

  13. Big thumbs up on the advice re a creative writing major. I was incredibly lucky in that my dad wouldnt have paid for college if i’d tried to major in English (which i love and would gladly major in). Instead, i had to get a major – computer science – that led to a practical job. Now, less than two years out of college, i’ve got the debt paid off, i’ve got a job i’m happy with, and i’ve got the freedom to persue a “dream job” somewhere down the road without any worries about starving or not being able to pay the rent.

  14. Creative Writing Majors…

    Well, I can only speak for myself, but I did English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. I loved it. I’ve wanted to write since I was little, so I wasn’t expecting anything magical to come from it. Truth be told, it was more to give the the opportunity to write. As a college student, there’s so much to do, if I didn’t HAVE to do something, I couldn’t afford to do it at all. Which meant I didn’t have time to do things–like writing–that I love. Having those creative classes gave to the TIME to write. That was what I really liked about it.

    I took mostly lit classes and I plan on getting my M.A. in lit, but I still think a got a lot out of my creative writing classes. And I DO think it helped me to be a better writer. I have no problem discerning the good advice from the bad. And I have a close friend in an MFA program that loves it. I think it depends on the person.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.