What I Learned Getting an English Degree
In case you missed it, last week on twitter there was a bit of a kerfuffle going on after Neil Gaiman plugged a program he strongly believed in, but made the perhaps poor choice of phrasing and hyperbole by saying you needed the program to be a writer. Though some took it more personally than others, I’m of the camp that it was just a poor choice of words which grew hurtful out of context. That’s not the point of this week’s blog, though.
See, in the course of the discussion of “what makes a real writer” (which I’ve already touched on here) the idea of degrees in general kept coming up. More importantly, it was debate over a persistent idea that continues to rear its head as the gatekeepers to publishing become less and less prevalent: Do you need an English degree to be a “real” writer?
Spoiler: Holy Shit No. Not at all. Not in the slightest. Like, a thousand times no.
I actually do have an English degree, earned and paid for and with the worried glances from my parents who kept asking me what I was going to do as far as employment with that sort of degree. I’ve gone down the path, and I can say without question that it is not necessary to be a writer. But, for those of you who still worry you might be missing out on key knowledge or experiences for lacking that piece of paper, I’m going to share with you what I learned during my education as an English major.
A Degree in English is a Degree in Bullshit
No, hang on, stay with me. I’m not saying that the degree itself is bullshit, I’m saying it’s a degree in learning how to bullshit. While most of my friends had tests that revolved around making drafts of buildings or creating computer programs, I had essay exams. Tests centered on analyzing the works we’d read, and creating theories of what the author meant then proving it with examples from the text. And as silly as that sounds at the outset, here’s the thing that so many of my peers never got: Your opinions are far less relevant than knowing what the professor wants your opinions to be.
The first, most important rule when getting into a new class was to gauge the professor. What do they like about the books? What themes do they keep touching on over and over? What are the points they grow most passionate and interested about? If you can nail that down, you’re golden. I’ve written papers theorizing dozens of ideas and agendas that I neither saw in the work nor believed in myself, but it never mattered, because that wasn’t what I was really being tested on. The system wasn’t designed to reward people who fought for their own ideas, especially if it went against the professor’s, it was built to tell someone in power what they wanted to hear, and the test grades reflected that.
By the by, less you think I’m calling the degree worthless, being able to bullshit a boss is probably one of the most important skills you’ll ever need in corporate America, and an English degree was awesome at helping me with that. Not so useful in terms of writing, though.
In Academia Classics are Golden, Contemporary is Garbage
Here’s a fun fact for you all: when I graduated college, I almost went for a Masters in English. Not because I really felt like it was a necessary education, but because I didn’t know what to do with myself and working toward a professor gig seemed as good as any. That idea burned away quickly, though, because as a reader I am all about the contemporary. I love reading new books with new ideas, studying how they build on classic themes and reflect new sides of our society.
Academia has room for exactly none of that shit. If it’s not sixty years old, its garbage so far as every program I’ve ever encountered is concerned. And while I agree that studying the classics is useful and with merit, that doesn’t mean there’s not something worthwhile to be learned from looking at the modern stuff, too. I have heard tales of some programs that allow for study of our more recent grand works, but those courses seem to be few and far between, so if you happen to be going down this road and encounter one, grab onto it for dear life.
Or don’t, because maybe you’re not like me and don’t care about the contemporary. That’s fine, there’s a lot of literature, we’re going to gravitate toward different favorites. And you’d think that would just be a given, right? Well…
English Departments are the Weirdest Pissing Contests Ever
I almost used dick-measuring up there, but that has a male context and females can certainly be as guilty of this as dudes. To be fair, this might be the case of just the department I attended, however I’ve talked to other English majors since then and found their experiences to be similar. Still, that’s all anecdotal, as is this whole blog really, so I feel like I should put out the “your mileage may vary” disclaimer just for good measure.
Anyway, about the pissing contest. Within the first year or so, many of your fellow English majors are going to begin staking out literary territories. Joyce, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, all of these are camps on which they will build their castles to defend their egos. Everything you’ve read that doesn’t fall into their camp is dismissed as a lesser work, and if you have read things from their turf then they will endlessly try to engage in debate or discussion to prove you’ve read less or didn’t have as firm an understanding on the topic. They are all committed to proving that their territory is the greatest, and that as the king of said area they are therefore the most enlightened among the masses.
On the flipside, the other English majors who don’t engage in this dumbshit are often cool as hell people, folks who share a genuine love of reading that you can shoot the shit with on books of all genres. I don’t know what makes so many of the English majors go into ego-protection mode once they hit college, though I have a theory that it’s a result of being one of the better-read people they know and then suddenly being thrust into an environment where everyone reads a lot, but that’s just a theory.
As with war, the best way to win this game is not to play. Since I was one of the people showing up hungover to class and reading stuff like Dresden Files and Christopher Moore in the hallway, I didn’t get dragged into these discussions much. Which, in retrospect, seems like one more debt of thanks I owe to my writing inspirations.
The Actual Writing Education is Rare and Far Between
In the four years I spent getting an English degree, I can remember exactly two classes where I felt like I grew as a writer, and both of them centered around workshopping, which nobody actually needs a college for. One of them was freshman year, where our professor would draw random elements, combine them into a prompt, have us write a short story, and then the class would workshop each story. It was a fun time, and in fact where I met one of my closest friends and eventual editor. The professor would also do things to push us and show us the importance of elements we didn’t always consider while writing. Case in point: Once he brought speakers and played different songs while we all knocked out a few hundred words. When it was done, we had a discussion about how the music had impacted the tone, or our overall ability to write. Not mind-blowing, but for a freshman learning to improve it was a smart, practical lesson to grasp.
Senior year was the second class that actually helped me. To be honest, by this point I’d actually stopped writing for fun anymore. The idea of making it as a writer just seemed too far-fetched, I was seeing my degree through to have it, and then I was going to bank on charm and hard-work for a real job. In this class, what was actually supposed to be a blow-off class in fact, the teacher didn’t really give much of a shit. It was a senior requirement, he knew it, we knew it, and so no one tried to treat it more seriously than it was. He’d give us simple prompts, leaving a lot of options open to explore, then tell us to write five pages by next week to be workshopped. Most of them were silly, or fun, or asked about life-stories that came easy to the page.
And in that class, I actually started to enjoy writing again. More than that, I started to think I might just be able to produce works that were worthwhile. The actual dream of being a writer wouldn’t come for a long time yet, I’d stick to the corporate plan for a while before starting to take the plunge, but it was in that senior class that I started to remember why I wanted to be a writer in the first place.
Because when you stripped away all the ego, and the bullshit, and the air of gravitas, books were fun. Reading them, making them, all of it was enjoyable when I could do it my own way. More than anything, that lesson alone is probably what I carried with me from the time in the English program. You have to write your own books, your own way, in a manner that truly makes you joyful to be doing it. Stick with that, and you’ll never have to worry about whether someone thinks you’re a “real writer” or not, because you’ll know that not only are you a real writer, you’re a real damn happy one.