Pathway to Becoming a Writer: Experience or Graduate School?

The age old debate on whether formal education is worthwhile for creative writers. There are mainly two schools (pun intended) of thought on this subject. There’s the Hank Moody opinion which is you can’t be taught how to write, you either have it or you don’t, and those that do have it need to glue their ass to a seat and work on it. In Californication, when Hank is the sit-in professor of creative writing at a university, he believes the class to be a waste of time because he can’t possibly teach you how to find your own voice and style. Some believe this manner of thinking: to be a writer you must write… a lot.

The other school of thought is that almost anyone can be taught to be a writer, you just need the education and motivation to do so. By participating in creative writing workshops and classes along with reading voraciously, one can learn the craft and go on to have a successful career as an author. This may be why there are Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate degrees in creative writing. I have a Bachelors in English. Personally, I don’t think this is true. I do think these degrees can help but they surely don’t guarantee success. Many of them don’t even market themselves to those searching for a career as a novelist but rather as a copywriter or various other careers.

I lean closer to the Hank Moody idea of growing as a writer in that you must glue your ass to a seat and write. While every writer needs a foundation of grammar and knowledge of the English language, beyond that, a lot can be learned simply by reading novels and stories along with experience. I think many creative writing classes take the information many other people have learned by reading books and putting the knowledge in a sparknotes version for a lot more money. While many exercises can be useful, they aren’t necessary to be a good writer. I think reading consistently and voraciously along with writing in the same manner is the key to becoming a successful writer and here’s why.

Mark Twain, great American novelist and satirist, left formal school in fifth grade and while writing, educated himself in public libraries. William Shakespeare never attended a university and spent very little time in formal schooling yet went on to be one of the most influential and well-known writers in history. Ernest Hemingway graduated from high school and worked as a reporter prior to WWI and after getting wounded in the war, returned home and worked for various publications while working on his novels and stories. Stephen King, best-selling prolific author, received a bachelors degree in English and while working as a teacher, wrote at night before selling his first novel, Carrie, allowing him to work as a writer full-time.

These are just some examples of how formal education doesn’t guarantee success as a writer and certainly isn’t necessary. Stephen King is the most formally educated writer in that list and even he attributes most of his success as a writer to soaking up every book he could but also to sitting down and actually writing. The physical acts of reading and writing are what will make you a better writer. Yes, classes can definitely help and give you a place where people can give you feedback on your work but I don’t know about you, but I’d rarely ever received useful criticism or critiques in creative writing classes from anyone that wasn’t my teacher. Most of the other students would say nice things so as not to hurt feeling which was useless. Tear my shit up. I lay myself before you and giveth unto thee the knives with which to hack and slice. If someone is telling you how great your work is and doesn’t offer any changes, they could potentially be loyal fans but they shouldn’t be the first person you send your manuscript to for feedback.

I may also be of the minority in thinking that good creative writing cannot be taught; it’s something that’s in you or it isn’t. This isn’t to say it can’t be brought out but it at least needs to be in there to start. Some people can pick up a pen and make beautiful sentences. Others can go through years of schooling and practice and still be average at best. It’s a skill you either have or you don’t, like many other skills such as athletics or music. But like athletes and musicians and any other skill you can think of, hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.

What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you think creative writing can be taught? Do you think it’s worthwhile for an aspiring writer to go to graduate school or do you think reading novels and writing is a sufficient diet?

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