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.
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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.