There are a lot of things you can go to college for, a lot of different degrees to try. But I’ve been offering advice as a writer and a creative person on this blog, and it’s been nagging at me for a while that I haven’t talked about this. Partly because it’s a really prickly and uncomfortable topic.
You should not go to college for creative writing, and probably not for any other form of art.
Yikes. Let me explain.
It’s a great idea to pursue an art form, IF you’re good. There is such a thing as talent, but it’s not what people think. People think talent equals being good at something. That’s skill. Almost any person can work at any skill and build it up. Talent is more about a natural sense for what it takes to raise a skill. You don’t have to look far on the internet to see clueless people with no talent, yet who are very, very slowly building their skill at some kind of art. If they had talent, there might be a chance, but instead they’ve only progressed from horrible to kind of bad after years of work.
You don’t have to look far in college, either, to find people like that.
I went to college because my parents insisted on it. They had some point of pride where their kid needed to go and complete all four years. Probably because they didn’t end up able to complete college due to life complications.
Now do I feel like the experience was worth tens of thousands of dollars in debt? Well, I DID, when I was actually there. That’s how being a motivated customer works. You don’t want to believe that you’ve been scammed.
Do I believe that now that I’m out?
I understand the premise behind it, really. You get a degree at something after being taught by all these “successful” people in your field, and then people will take you more seriously.
The question is, WHO will take you more seriously?
It’s not agents, who are so swamped with book proposals they pass their query letters off to interns.
It’s not publishers, who only care about finding some perfect book to tick all of their constantly morphing marketing goals. (Fifty Shades of Hunger Games in Our Stars.)
It’s not everyday readers, who don’t care if you’re from a shack in the sewers as long as you write a good story.
You know who will care? Slightly? Employers who need a business writer. Which is great, but that’s not what you got a degree in, now was it?
And yet, here I am, struggling to build my platform as an author while relying on freelance writing for businesses as my main income source. I definitely CANNOT say that my degree is being put to any real use.
Instead of spending four years in college and racking debt to party, watch Netflix, and occasionally do homework, kids out of high school with an interest in art should pursue that art HARDCORE on their own, and network until they find a mentor who can help them get their career going.
They’ll still get the education, only better because it’s all practical (spent on the work they want to make), and they’ll still get access to knowledge and expertise from others in their field. Only, they’ll be better mentors, because they’re people who are out there in the real world and succeeding, not teaching classes.
What do you think is better? Four years of college for business, or one year of mentorship by a multi-millionaire entrepreneur? And with how connected and expansive the world is, don’t tell me it’s impossible to get a mentor’s attention in four years of hard work.
The Missing Side of the Issue
This also highlights a problem I see a lot in American society. Lots of people are against going to college for artsy degrees, but they’re only getting the message halfway.
Let’s say some kid in high school wants to try being an author. His parents are not supportive, and will probably say something like “You can still go to college for something in science while you work on that.”
This is extremely wrong, for the following reasons:
1: I would argue that MOST college degrees are useless in the current state of the country. So it’s not like the parents are protecting him from making a bad investment. Instead, they’re making him pick a slightly less bad, but exponentially more expensive, investment.
2: If your kid knows what he wants, you should let him pursue that, and that alone. Now if he’s wavering, no problem, it’s better to guide him in a financially secure direction. But these kids who want to be artists and get tricked into getting a degree, thinking that gives them the credibility they need, are a major problem with higher education.
I’m Already in College for Writing. Now What?
First, let’s get some perspective.
I mean, yeah, this is not ideal, but neither is marrying your high school sweetheart because you got her pregnant and having to work full time straight out of graduation to support her and the child.
That didn’t happen to me, but it happens to lots of people. Instead, this college scam got me. Life is hard, people get led into bad or sub-optimal paths in life no matter what they try. Life is full of obstacles, and it’s never as simple as what the authorities make it seem.
I’m not saying you should drop out, although it is an option. However, if I were in your position, here’s what I would do, looking back now that I’ve been a college graduate for several years.
1: Do not stay past a four-year degree. If you’re close to getting yours, you may see the writing on the wall based on the environment and the people around you. The people who stay in college more than four years will basically live there forever. I was itching to leave by halfway into year three, and I was never happy during my time there to begin with (just neutral at best), so it was an easy choice. But be very careful about getting roped into some kind of teaching position while working on an MFA. I swear, it should be illegal to be both a student and a teacher at the same school. It’s like working at a grocery store and getting paid in food.
2: Make rapid and thorough use of every resource and connection you can. This is especially important if you go to a major university. The one advantage of colleges is that they’re popular. Everyone goes to them. That means shit happens there. Major writing conferences, authors or other creative people visiting to give talks, stuff like that. If you have the time, start a club or group that fulfills an interest the student body has, yet that no one has made yet. Make waves. I tried to do this, but not hard enough. It takes a concerted effort, one that is easier to do if you’re not in school anymore. Just saying.
3: Write every day and market every day. Education is seductive. People get addicted to the idea that “I just need to learn XYZ first, then I’ll start.” But the goalposts for what you “need to learn” before you’re ready to put yourself out there as an artist will move forever if you don’t just skip over them. I believed that I needed four years of school to know how to write, even though I was told in high school, by people of all ages, that I was good and would make it. So why didn’t I just try to make it?
Again, this is a rough topic to cover, because it’s one of the biggest investments people make in their lives. And I get that a lot of people won’t listen to me, because I’m basically saying “You don’t need to go to college, just work hard.” and that’s not an appealing message. It doesn’t jump and glitter off the page. It probably makes you cringe, if you’re in college for an art-related degree right now.
You’ll see the message, though, among successful entrepreneurs in all spaces. They call college a scam and urge you to just START DOING WHAT YOU LOVE. And they’re right. These incredibly rich and powerful institutions, however, have no motivation to intentionally thin out their pool of potential customers.
The most I can say is that if you have a particular path in life you want to take, copy the path of whoever inspires you. Who is very successful at what you want to do? Did they go to college, or did they hustle and network while working a job and saving their money?
I think this country would be in better shape if more people used that as their metric for whether to go to college.