Trying for clarity

A number of people seem to be under the impression that in the previous post I was recommending against MFAs. My post was about undergraduate, not postgraduate study. I made no such recommendation.

As it happens, I know a number of people who’ve found certain MFA programmes extremely useful. The Vermont one, for instance, has been a wonderful experience for several friends of mine. But the vast majority of full-time professional writers do not have MFAs. Nope, I don’t have statistical evidence to back that up, but I’d be very surprised if I was wrong.

My post was in response to teenagers who asked about majoring in creative writing for an undergraduate degree. They seemed to be under the misapprehension that such a degree would automatically lead to a career as a full-time professional writer. It will not.1 Or that it is the best preparation for such a career. It is not.

There are a million different paths to being a writer. Most writers have had (and have) a huge variety of different jobs and studied (if they did at all) a wide variety of subjects. There are as many different experiences and backgrounds as there are writers. And don’t forget the vast majority of published writers are not full-time writers. They have other jobs.

Garth Nix, who confessed to having an undergraduate degree in writing, did not graduate and instantly become a New York Times bestseller. First he worked as a bookseller, an editor, an agent, and, I’m sure, many other things. He read and read and read and wrote and wrote and eventually was published and later still became a New York Times bestseller.

Do I think if you do major in creative writing that you’ve made a dread awful mistake and your life is over? No, of course not. Everything that happens in life is useful to a writer. The good, the bad, the ugly and the boring. I have a friend who swears she learned way more about human nature in a critique circle than she did travelling through Europe and Asia.

If I’m asked the question again will I answer the same way? Sure. I think there are way more useful things to major in as an undergraduate. Something that hones your research skills, for instance.

You can study anything at all, do any kind of job, and still become a writer. All I am saying is that studying creative writing is not a prerequisite to becoming a writer.

  1. I’m sure there’s some exceptions somewhere but they are so rare as to be irrelevant. []


  1. Patrick on #

    Justine – you are presenting too many choices. The Dept. of There Is Only One Way To Do Things – (which I am the chairperson of) requires that you identify the One True Way to picking a college education for those young ones aspiring to become a published commercial fiction writer.

    Anyone who provides examples contrary to your One True College Path definition will be labeled as ‘Wrong’, ‘Lucky’, and ‘an Exception’.


  2. Justine on #

    One true way, eh?

    Okay then: to be a published commercial fiction writer you have to drop out of school and move to Australia to become a jackaroo or jillaroo. There is NO OTHER WAY.

    Is that better, Patrick?

  3. Brent on #

    You might also point out that those Creative Writing courses in uni will most probably be taught by people who can’t make money writing to turned to teaching. 🙂

  4. Laura on #

    In college (or uni, as you say), we engineers had an insult to the english majors who asked why we picked a field that was so hard, why we worked ourselves silly puzzling over math and science until wee hours of the night.

    I asked them, “Why is it that engineers take up writing as a hobby, yet writers don’t take up engineering as a hobby?”

    Granted, that wasn’t very nice. No one likes their passion to be called a hobby. I always enjoyed reading and writing more than differential equations, but I also wanted some firm ground to stand on.

    The point I’m trying to make is I agree with Justine. You can major in sciences and keep your love of writing going strong. It’s always an option to take a writing course on top of your mandatory course load. I did it and my brain didn’t fry from overload.

  5. Caroline on #

    Thanks for the last couple of blogs! I was seriously considering Creative Writing for a major, but somehow it didn’t really get me excited. I’m glad to hear that I should study other things, its really liberating actually. Thanks a bunch for all the awesome advice.

  6. Patrick on #

    Excellent! Now we know the path to publication! I just have to move to Australia now. Do they hire lazy ineffective jackaroo’s in Australia? At least I never got one of those useless degrees they sell at Universities.

  7. rebecca on #

    i’m majoring in writing, have no double major, have no minor. and i’ve always known i’d be screwed! hahahaha. i’m not good at anything else, so i did it anyway, but i completely agree that a writing degree isn’t necessary to write. even if i majored in physics, i think i’d still be doing writing on my own time. lucky for me, there’s lots of semiotics and tech writing classes and assorted other liberal arts schtuff thrown into my course requirements.

    oooh, and i’m applying to vermont college for next year. *crosses fingers and trembles*

  8. Amber on #

    But didn’t I read that Anna Creek – aka The Biggest Cattle Ranch In The World – just closed way the heck down? Where be the opportunities for cowpersons – sensitive, new age or otherwise – now? The chances are about as good as getting published. Run, back to your CW degrees, everyone!

  9. Garth Nix on #

    I was being a trifle facetious in my earlier comment, because I do basically agree with Justine, I just couldn’t resist noting that in fact I do have an undergraduate degree majoring in creative writing.

    You definitely don’t *need* to major in creative writing to become a writer, but it also is not the worst thing you could do. In fact, I think it’s only really damaging when you assume that doing such a degree will automatically catapult you into publication, and you don’t do anything else.

    That’s probably the worst aspect of such degrees, in that much of their promotion suggests that doing the course is the fast-track to writing and publishing success, and some of the students believe it.

  10. Jessica on #

    I was never interested in doing creative writing at uni, but i’ve been considering going back to Tafe (you’re Aussie, so you know what i’m talking about) to continue doing the Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. I only completed one subject last time (short story 1) before I inexplicably started an arts degree concentrating on politics and international relations subjects (?!) and i swear, if i never have to write another essay again i’ll be HAPPY AS A CLAM.

    When i was doing Short Story though our whole goal was basically to get published. And our tutor was just a massive push in that direction. Of course there was theory and writing exercises but the major gist was read as much as you can, learn from it, write your guts out, and send your completed stories off to publication/competition after publication/competition.

    Anyway. Ramble ramble. Do you have any thoughts on this, Justine? Or does the same opinion go for the diploma as it does for the creative writing major? Off the top of my head i can think of Zoe Dattner and Louise Swinn who did it at RMIT and went on to establish Sleepers Publishing and i think Kate Holden did it at RMIT too. Then again, none of those three are fiction writers. Hrmph.

    Sometimes a kick in the arse is good.

    Okay, i think what i’m asking is this: do you know many people who have done it and if so, what became of them? (Editor, journalist, author, plumber … )

  11. Justine on #

    Jessica: Postgrad study is totally different. I have lots of friends who’ve used postgrad creative writing courses as a way to give themselves time (and permission) to write as much as they want while also getting feedback and hopefully learning about how publishing works. If you can afford it or you get a scholarship (do Tafe scholarships even exist?) I don’t see why not.

  12. Penni on #

    Jessica: I’ve done a Tafe degree and a MA in Creative Writing (the Tafe degree before I got published, the MA afterwards). The MA was mostly to give me a life in the world away from my computer and my kids, and though it was taught in a prestigious uni, it is not a path to getting published – in my opinion it’s mostly of value if you have a thing for Critical Theory (which I do). (The Usian MFA model might be different)

    The RMIT Tafe course was far more practical and industry focussed (and cheap!), plus it got me work as a reader in a publishing house, which was great training for a novelist. People I graduated RMIT with at the turn of the century (ha!) are now editors, publishers, successful authors, CYL peeps and Zoe and Louise of Sleepers fame. My current publisher and the editor I’ve been working with while my usual editor was on maternity leave) are both RMIT alumni.

  13. Jessica on #

    Thanks so much for commenting and helping me out, Penni! This is something i’ve been umming and ahhing about for a couple of years now and have started seriously thinking about again (somewhat secretly, i don’t want to alarm my parents. Haha.)

    [And pssst. I’m reading Undine at the moment. When i’m finished get ready for a massive gushing comment on your blog or email. You’ve been warned! 😉 ]

  14. Jess on #

    I have the opposite problem of not having a real-world skills set but no money to go back to school for the MFA. So I’m dirt poor broke, working retail part-time and writing. It feels like a catch-22, even though I’m ecstatic about the spending twenty hours a week writing part.

    I’m writing my pants off hoping to get published before I hit bottom (YA fantasy, of course) and only the fact I’m married to someone with a stable income has kept it from happening yet, but he’s getting a little antsy that I contribute to our savings (understandably so).

    I’m SO CLOSE but I feel like I’m running out of time, and if the window closes (which I know is just writer paranoia) and I have to get a real full-time soul-crushing desk job, I don’t know what I’ll do. I was SO miserable when I tried that the first time. (This is partly because … I have no skills set, see it all goes full circle) so the only full-time jobs I can find are somewhat below my intellectual abilities and nonstimulating.

    Sorry to rant, but this topic is a button for me. 🙂

    (I’ve lurked on and off for months and am just now saying hi. *waves*)

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