Degrees and Kinds: On Writers and English Majors
Late last week, there was a conversation filtering through Twitter about degrees. Specifically, English degrees. Is it helpful for would-be writers to get their English BA? The tweet that kicked things off said, “No.”
As is typical for Twitter, some people disagreed.
And some people disagreed with those disagreements.
I chimed in briefly, but I have more thoughts that I’d like to explore here.
Cutting right to the quick, my short answer is, “Do whatever you want, it’s your life, but I did not find an English degree particularly helpful—either for writing, or life outside academia.”
“But KT,” the crowds cry. “Didn’t you study history?”
Indeed I did! Primarily because I did not find an English degree particularly helpful. See, I actually bounced around five different majors during my undergrad (it’s a miracle I graduated on time). If I can recall them correctly, they were:
English/Drama (double major)
English/Drama/History (major, two double-minors)
History/Medieval Studies (double major)
I realize that’s only four. For the life of me, I cannot remember the fifth—but I know it was there.
Regardless, looking at my progression through majors reveals a pattern. It took a while, but I gradually left English/Drama (literature-based courses) and settled firmly, finally in History (still liberal arts, but not literature-based). Why?
English was making me hate literature and stories. Even then, I knew I was going to be a writer, and I sensed that hating literature might hinder that goal. Really, it was a fundamental disagreement in teaching philosophies. I wanted to learn how stories worked. I wanted to learn what made them beautiful. I wanted to appreciate them as stories—which means that you’re talking about the themes, symbolism, and politics as well. Those are already part of any well-written piece. Basically, I wanted to talk about the syllabus like a writer.
Instead, I got this:
And so, after a particularly rough American literature class, I went to my registrar and got myself safely ensconced in History (I dropped the Medieval Studies component when I realized I like medieval theology, not medieval history).
Do I regret my decision?
Not at all. Having that history degree let me take a summer job at the museum. The skills I developed through my BA and through museum work let me carve out a dayjob wherein my creative partner and I teach history through theatre. Looking specifically to my fiction, history has all been grist for the mill. Moreover, learning how to do history has greatly impacted the way I write (I spent a long, long time digging through La Corriveau’s court records). And arguably, the museum’s impacted my fiction even more. How many nineteenth centuries have I written?
So for me, as a writer, History was infinitely more helpful than English.
You still need to know your field.
While I could not leave that American lit class fast enough, there were other English classes that did feed into my writing. Even genre writers should be familiar with the classics. I took a twentieth-century literature course in my first year that provided a wonderful survey—I likely would not have read The Sound and the Fury without it, and without that, I likely could not have written the Creepy Play. A Science Fiction course and Old English were useful for still more obvious reasons.
And if you’re not taking English electives (which I do recommend, if you can find the right ones—survey courses are great), you should be prepared to self-teach. As Stephen King so rightly said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time—or the tools—to write.”
What about Creative Writing MFAs, then?
This could be a whole other post, as MFAs are equally contentious. Responses can range from, “MFAs are scams,” to, “They saturate the market with MFA-style fiction,” to, “Well, I guess, if you’re having a hard time improving on your own…”
You don’t need an MFA to be a writer. Really, you don’t need any degree to be a writer. As long as you are reading and writing lots, you’ll develop the skills just fine.
But degrees make it a lot easier.
I’ve talked about the Stonecoast MFA plenty on this blog. I’ll keep saying the same thing: for me, an MFA helped my writing like nothing else. It was everything I wanted from undergrad English courses. We talked about stories and how they worked. We talked about literature as writers. And I got to practice lots and lots, while more experienced, knowledgeable people provided their input.
When I showed up at Stonecoast, I was technically competent and entirely too cocksure. Stonecoast knocked me down a much-needed peg, it taught me how to be an artist, and it gave me a whole host of other skills—from critiquing, to teaching, to writing prose that’s beautiful as well as technically competent.
Most importantly, Stonecoast gave me the tools to teach myself more effectively. It taught me how to learn from other writers, and it gave me a chorus of phantom faculty in my head. Now, when I’m writing, I have this:
“You’re very clever, but this ending cheats the reader. Stop showing off and go write something better,” “Well, this is nice, but surface-level. How can you write with more density?” “Your architecture is off,” “Oh, yay! This feels like a KT Bryski story! Good work!”
You don’t need an MFA, but I’m sure glad I have mine.
Through all of this discussion, a consistent thread emerges: you learn to become a writer by writing and by reading. An English degree is not necessarily the best for that, because there’s very little writing and you’re reading for an entirely different purpose.
If you can find another degree that feeds your passion, go nuts. I’ve always liked History, and I’ve parlayed it into a job that keeps a roof over my head. Otherwise—yes, find something that allows you to pursue your passion.
And remember: it’s hard to say where things will end up. We don’t always realize when we’ve come to a fork in the road. It’s been six full years since that first summer job; eight since that random spark from The Sound and the Fury lodged in my chest.
At the end of the day, only you know what is best for you. Just make sure that you can write, read, and eat consistently.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sticking with the madrigals: “April is in my mistress’ face.” This is another Morley piece, and it makes me wish I knew more music theory. Listen to the altos’ line at 0:54. I am sure there’s a term for that very distinctive phrase that ends in that very particular sort of chord, but alas, I do not know it…