Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is College Required for Writers?

I've just completed the last of my school talks this spring, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was speaking to single class groups, and the terrific thing about that is that I'm able to answer so many more questions from each student. I closed this speaking season talking with elementary school students, but I've spoken with a great many high school students and middle school students this spring, and many of these older students ask me about college.

Some of these enterprising students want to know what they should major in if they want to become writers. Some of them ask me whether they should go to college at all. These are important questions, and I try to answer them honestly.

I tell them:
Don't take creative writing in college. Their teacher will teach students the way he or she writes, not the special way of writing that each student has within him or her. Instead, take classes analyzing great writers - I took classes in Shakespeare, Dickens, Kafka, Milton, and groups of novelists (18th c. American writers, for example, and an overview course in "the novel"). Seeing how other writers have created powerful literature will give students ideas about how they can come up with their own ways of writing moving stories or books.

Write for their college newspaper, because the discipline of meeting deadlines with good copy will stand them in good stead in writing regularly for the rest of their lives.

Don't go to college expecting that a degree will help get a job as a writer upon graduation, because there are no magic courses that will help them sell their Great American Novel. However, if they take as many different types of courses as they can, and open their minds and hearts to the information they can take away from those courses, from the professors they talk with outside the classrooms, from the students they meet and with whom they discuss life, then they'll develop their own unique ways of thinking. If they can think creatively and critically and for themselves, then that will become the soul of their writing. College is useful to broaden minds for writers; it's not a punchcard that will guarantee profitable work.

I never took a creative writing course at Rice University. I majored in English, Political Science and History. I wrote for the student newspaper (Rice had no journalism department) and also wrote four novels before I graduated. College is for studying the world around you and beginning to apply what you've seen, before you have to make a living at it. Three of those books were, well, terrible. They were practice novels, I suppose. But the fourth one had real promise. I kept working on it as I learned more about writing as a published author and finally, 25 years after I completed the first draft in college, Harcourt published SIMON SAYS. To this day, I get more passionate emails from teen readers about that book than any other.

College will give a future writer a handsome degree to hang on your wall, terrific friends you'll never forget, and the experience and intellectual background to see the world around you in a unique way that will forever inspire your future writing. Just don't expect a paying job to greet you on your graduation.


  1. Hey Elaine! :) Thanks for your insight. You're an amazing person! love, Bailey

  2. Thanks, Bailey! Sorry it took me a while to see your comment. I'm back in SD with Art now - unpacking tons of boxes from Indiana!
    Love, Elaine