The best education for a writer?

I’ve seen the growth of specifically writing-oriented university courses and qualifications (e.g. a Bachelor or Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing or Creative Writing, offered by a number of institutions).  I can’t help but think that these courses and degrees are putting the cart before the horse.  They may be able to teach you to write, or write better – but they can’t give you a broad-based foundation on which to ground your writing, and on which to build.  They can give you training, but not education… and there’s a BIG difference between the two.  (If you doubt that, ask yourself:  would you prefer your pre-pubescent daughter to attend sex EDUCATION or sex TRAINING classes in school?  I think that illustrates the difference right away!)

I was inspired to think about this by an article titled ‘Majoring in History to Become a Writer‘.  Here are a couple of salient paragraphs.

If you want to write you’re going to need experience writing and a history degree, even at the undergraduate level, is nothing if not rigorous when it comes to writing. My freshman western civ class required a fifteen page paper on the Roman Civil War. Frankly, I didn’t do that much writing again until grad school where we were expected to produce twenty to thirty page papers every semester. The heart of history is writing, and writing in a clear style.

. . .

Second, you’ll learn to do research. That’s important because as a writer of fiction you’ll have to acquaint yourself with things you’re not necessarily knowledgeable about. In fact here at Uprising we often talk about research and how you can write what you know, by learning what you don’t know then writing about it. You can educate yourself on other cultures, places, geography and so forth. Whether you want to write historical fiction, genre fiction such as sci-fi, or steamy romance, you’ll have to learn about things you’re not really familiar with.

There’s much more at the link.  Recommended reading.

I understand the author’s reasoning;  but I don’t think he goes far enough in his analysis.  I was raised in the British academic tradition, if I may use that phrase, by parents who each obtained a Doctorate in their respective fields (my father in Economics, my mother in Sociology) in the 1950’s.  Each went on to command respect in their fields in South Africa, where they’d settled.  However, for both of them, their post-graduate ‘specialist’ degrees were built upon a ‘generalist’ Bachelor of Arts degree.  They regarded the latter as ‘education’, and the former as ‘training’ after becoming ‘educated’.  Their professors (in the immediately post-World-War-II generation) taught that approach, and recommended it.

My parents, in turn, influenced me.  I began by tackling a generalist BA degree as well.  Given the ongoing external wars and internal civil unrest in South Africa, it took me ten years of part-time study to complete it, but I managed it in the end.  I did a dual major in English and History, with sub-majors in Economic History and Philosophy.  I followed that with a post-graduate diploma in Management, plus a Masters degree in the same field;  then the good Lord decided to change my career path, and I started all over again by studying Theology to become a pastor.  I ended up with four university degrees, and a very broad spectrum of courses.

That turned out to be a blessing for my writing career, along with some very varied and extensive life experiences.  I had enough background to be able to tackle almost anything that came up;  and, more importantly, I knew how to research areas about which I understood nothing at all, because I’d had to do so many times before in my secular education and career.  I don’t think I could possibly have learned as much, or experienced as much, by tackling a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts.

Another very important aspect of my education was that it was all part-time.  I never had the funds to be able to afford full-time study.  All my degrees were obtained by correspondence, studying in the evening after working during the day.  It meant that my progress was slower than it might have been… but there were no academic ivory towers involved.  I was rooted in and grounded upon the reality of earning a living, staying alive in a sometimes very heated combat zone, and not getting airy-fairy, artsy-fartsy, idealistic ideas about how the world should be.  I was too busy ducking and running from what it was!

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I think that educational background has served me far better, as a writer, than the more specialized, limited education offered by today’s universities in the field of creative writing.  I daresay many of the authors who contribute here would say the same.  To cite just one example, Dave Freer is very highly qualified in ichthyology, an intensely practical science, and has also experienced military service, farming, emigrating to another continent, and what have you.  I’m sure his writing would not be nearly so interesting without all he’s learned from those different backgrounds.

What say you, dear reader?  How have your life experiences and education affected your writing?  Have they helped, or hindered it?  Please let us know in Comments, with as many details as seem appropriate.

25 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

25 responses to “The best education for a writer?

  1. paladin3001

    I would consider myself an “uneducated” person. I have had some college training and education but that’s it. I am a voracious reader and have worked numerous types of jobs through out my life. I have been a reservist with a stint overseas, taxi driver, small engine mechanic, host of service industry jobs, and security.
    What it has done for me is given me a underbelly view of the human condition in it’s highs and very lows.
    My love of reading and looking for interesting stories has taught me how to ask questions to get the information I need. Right now I just need more practice in the writing department and that is coming along slowly but surely.

  2. I think part of the best education that a writer can have is going out and doing things and then describing them to people. Improv training is also a lot of fun, though it will take quite some time to kick in even if it’s done right. (“Right” as in “not going for the easy joke even if it makes fun of the new guy.” I’ve seen the latter and it isn’t pretty.) And of course, reading widely is always recommended, so that you get exposed to a variety of writing styles and structures.

    • If you can hack it, comedy training is good for structural purposes. For instance, did you know there’s a particular method for constructing punchlines? The funniest bit goes at the end. It sounds obvious, but it really isn’t.

  3. Uncle Lar

    The two things a writer absolutely must have are the ability to communicate and to actually have something to say. A solid command of the language is most helpful, but lacks thereof can be overcome with a good editor.
    And, yes, I’m aware that the above is a gross simplification, but true none the less.

  4. I’d say a blend of real-world knowledge of life and training of some kind in research. That could be a BA in history, or a BS in a hard science, but knowing how to dig, and how to evaluate sources, is a priceless skill. And MFA or BA in English Lit teaches you about literature, or used to, but not story-telling, which is what really good writers do. Some of my favorite authors were not college educated per se, but they knew how to learn, and how to tell stories (Ernie Gann, Louis Lamour).

    I took shop as well as home ec and music in school. Then I got a BA in history and German with a minor in applied music, worked in aviation for some years, and then went back and got advanced degrees that blended several disciplines. I never stopped reading, everything from history to theology to geology to German literature to archaeology to ranch management to military manuals. And I never stopped writing, fan-fic and poems to dead trees and histories and mini-biographies for a county historical society and class work and original stories.

  5. *shrug* WP ate my comment. Tl:Dr version – broad life experiences plus learning research skills and how to tell stories produces the best writer. That does not necessarily include getting an MFA or other writing-specific degree.

    • Sam L.

      An MFA might just hurt your chances of selling your writing. Too literary.

      • In my (admittedly limited) experience it’s worse. I’ve yet to see anyone with a creative writing degree that didn’t give up writing afterwards. Usually not consciously, but going on 10 years now for the most recent graduate and still no writing. And in at least two cases, there were novels just waiting final passes. Drawered. All questions about them answered with *shrug* or at most ‘someday’.

        • TRX

          I’ve seen the same thing happen with people who were reasonably good artists. I think whatever talent they had got swamped in “craft.”

  6. Draven

    Well, my BA has informed me enough on certain issues to tell you the film industry is f****d.

    I wrote better than most of the folks that had screenwriting as their actual focus.

    • I took broadcast studies at a tiny little private college up in Washington state. In one of our little classes, our professor showed us a video for training judges for crew competitions, and walked us through picking apart all of the bonehead mistakes therein, including, but not limited to: forgetting to white balance, doing cuts so that it looked as though the rowers were about to ram each other, having a structural issue so that it sounded like the judges were supposed to take bribes, forgetting to level the camera, and so on. The kicker was that he had gotten the video from the organization it had been made for so that he could make a replacement, after they had happily been using it as training material for years, and that it had been created by one of those universities in Southern California known for movie-making majors.

      Which he had underbid by quite a bit, because he could make better video in his sleep.

      Note that this professor was a very sarcastic man, no doubt because 75% or more of the students he had to teach showed little inclination to effort or intelligence. The other 25% of us took careful note of how the classes behaved, banded together, and got really good grades while we learned how the equipment worked. (Group projects aren’t so bad if you get to pick your partners.)

  7. Sam L.

    I remember reading the back cover of a Ted Sturgeon novel (or an end page) that listed all (or many) of the odd jobs he’d had, which gave me the idea that it takes that many to learn to write about people in sf.

  8. I always liked the sciences, and dithering a bit over which one to specialize in broadened my education a bit. And has proven very useful for writing SF.

    But working, summer jobs during college, and for oil companies after getting a BS in Geology and just having lived long enough to accumulate various experiences gives me the visceral knowledge of what it feels like.

    The writing skills? I haven’t taken a writing class in my life. But I’ve read all my life, and it’s that accumulated bone deep familiarity with the written story that is the foundation of my writing abilities.

    Oww! Wait! Okay, since I’ve started writing I’ve taken workshops, both in person and on-line. Also valuable. Now. But I suspect they’d have been meaningless before I’d had years of hands on experience. I’ve had plenty of “Oh! That’s what I’m doing wrong!” moments.

  9. I had a conventional college education – a major in English, but ventured out into electives that interested me: a course in Roman Art and Architecture, another in Japanese Art and Architecture, the required sciences, including one in anthropology. I did some post-grad studies in the military, for an advanced degree in public administration, which was more interesting than it sounds. (Never did the thesis, or anything to get the advanced degree, just took the classes because I was bored at my first overseas post.)
    Oh, yes – the military. That’s when I learned most about writing, and communication, and being able to vary my “voice” according to what was required. Also learned to take constructive criticism and editing by someone who didn’t give a damn about my feelings. There was a wide range of subjects which I had to deal with writing about: everything from a news story, to a thirty second spot, to letters of instruction, reprimand, performance ratings … everything and anything.

  10. kaflick

    I found that spending four decades writing the specifications for several engineering projects every year, doing the projects and then writing operator manuals, repair/maintenance manuals and sales brochures for those projects (all of which have to be clear and precise enough to be useful and still simple enough for the ‘average plant person’ to read and understand) was excellent practice.

    ‘Average plant person’ was a term of art describing the most vegetable brained person working at the current customer’s plant who would be using our equipment and therefore our documentation. It could be used in our internal documents without generating problems if the customers saw it being used.

  11. BobtheRegisterredFool

    My real formal training is in XXXXX and YYYYY, which are technical fields. My formal training in writing was mostly the basics, and all the advanced learning has been internet flame wars and self study to directions off the internet.

    I still take pride in a complement from Pogo about a post in the Bar’s Politics forum. I’m still unready in fiction, but I’m confident in my nonfiction, and am unsure about my business writing.

    I do read a fair bit, even if I don’t necessarily match the real bibliophiles around here. The reading has probably helped. Practice preparing and delivering presentations has probably helped. Taking minutes at meetings has probably helped.

    My takeaways are: 1) Creativity is a trainable habit which you need to tune to the type of art 2) Skill is built by the experience of carrying out many projects 3) You have to learn techniques to manage your projects 4) You can kill your interest in doing something by making your process too painful 5) There’s apparently enough individual variation in ‘most useful process’ that my advice is only going to be useful to some people, presuming it is useful for everyone.

    tl;dr everyone who wants to write fiction should work their way through a PhD in Industrial Engineering as a Corrections Officer. Also they need to drive a large sedan, wear grey flannel suits, and collect elephant figurines.

  12. Trying it once more:

    When my wife and I were in school, from junior high through high school, we were expected to write at least one paper per year, all with proper footnotes and a bibliography. We were taught how to research using reference works and periodicals guides, and typed our papers on manual typewriters. I remember borrowing one in the 10th Grade that was a 1920s vintage machine, and wore out a manual portable I bought to finish out high school and college.

    But while I could crank out term papers, that’s not the same as creative writing. It’s a different style. This month I’ll be tacking an annual report as well as working on a couple of children’s books, and the style is not the same. For that matter, writing for non-academic publications requires a different style, one that grabs the reader and holds their attention to the very end. That’s because this sort of writing is essentially telling a story.

    How to tell a good story is something i wish I learned. That, and grammar, which I did not grasp the importance of until I tried my hand at programming and realized it was about the clear communication of ideas. For it doesn’t matter how varied a person’s background might be, if that person can’t use that to tell a story, then it’s not going to help him to be a writer.

    I don’t know if college creative writing classes are any good, and if the professor hasn’t made his bones with fiction sales, I’m dubious about the value. But I do see where the art of holding an audience’s attention and entertaining them can be taught. Whether college classes actually teach this is another issue.

    • Dorothy Grant

      Kevin, I don’t know why the spam filter thinks all your comments are tasty, but trust me, if you haven’t gotten a duplicate up, I make sure to boot ’em out into the light of day every time I find ’em there!

      • No problem. Was thinking of tinkering with it, but didn’t want to be annoying. I think part of it is a function of how long it takes to post. First post failed, but I had copied it first. Second post, I waited just a few moments first.

  13. Mary

    Get your degree in a field that will let you get a day job in an area that doesn’t eat up all your writing energy. Regular hours are also a plus.

  14. Leon

    Except for watching the prof in my Shakespeare class do all the roles
    in one of the plays while standing at the front of the room with the
    playbook as his only prop, working on the university grounds crew and
    shooting NRA Highpower Rifle, and pistol matches, did more for my writing
    than my BA.

  15. I don’t know about writing classes, since I’ve never had a conventional composition class. And the only thing I write these days are reviews and my blog. Both of those are phenomenally great, though.
    I do know a bit about counselling and being a human being. And I believe my years in smoke-filled rooms full of recovering addicts and alcoholics made a greater contribution to my understanding & compassion than three college degrees in psychology and counselling.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s