Do Writers Need College?

I’ve been working on many things in the last month, including a few writing courses by Holly Lisle. In “Mugging the Muse,” she asks if college is really necessary to become a writer. Then she asks us to write about the real life experiences that we can draw on for our writing.

I have a great deal of respect for Holly, and I agree with her; college is not necessary to make a good writer. However, I know that I learned a great deal from college, including lessons that are helping me today. No, I didn’t learn how to write novels in college, or even good short stories. But I still learned real life lessons that help me to be a better writer and a better person.

First, some background. I first attended a college class in 1996, while stationed in Okinawa with the U.S. Navy. It would take fourteen years and five different colleges before I would receive a bachelor’s degree. I never intended to go to college. I graduated from high school shortly after my seventeenth birthday, certain that I hated school enough to condense my final two years into one, convinced that I never wanted to go to school again. So I joined the Navy, because in the small town in which I grew up, there was nothing else for a high school graduate except a fast food or store clerk job.

Ironically, I spent nine grueling months in a Navy school, learning electronics. This was probably the hardest thing I’d done at that point, because I was naturally a creative type, and I had inadvertently chosen an extremely logical profession. But I made it through, with honors, thank you very much. And then I went to Okinawa, where there was nothing to do after work except go to bars or go to the beach. I don’t drink and I don’t tan, and I was dating a guy who was busy with college classes. So first I bought myself a sewing machine and finished learning how to sew. Then I bought my first computer and dipped my toes into the waters of further education.

One of my first classes was an English course, where I had to find my atrophied creative side again. It was hard for me! I had spent so long learning to be logical that I spent hours just trying to think of a topic for my first essay. Once I began, however, I began writing again, or at least to start stories I couldn’t finish. I took a few more classes, accumulating the equivalent of one semester’s credits, before I processed out of the Navy and went home to Maine.

I moved to Utah a few months later, because I had chosen a college in Salt Lake, where I intended to study information technology. A year later, after two different jobs and three apartments, I began studying for an Associate of Science, with a certificate in Accounting. I took another year off to work as a bookkeeper before I went to a four-year college and completed one semester as an Accounting major, transferred to a different school for two additional semesters, and had to drop out to get a job. I didn’t go back (to college number five) for another seven years, when I was working as a tax preparer, and realized that 2009 and 2010 were the perfect years to use tax incentives to help pay for my bachelor’s degree. I switched my major to Communications Studies and earned the remaining credits through an internet-based distance education program. (It’s a real school, I promise. It has a campus in Iowa.) Except for that first English class, none of those schools, none of those professors taught me how to write a novel. So Holly is right, in that regard. However, I learned a whole lot more than that.

I learned that I could be creative again. I learned that school could be enjoyable, once I left behind the idiots from high school. I learned how to speak a bit of Japanese and German, how to do my own bookkeeping, and that other people appreciated my writing. I learned that if I wanted to succeed, I needed to show up every day and do the work to the best of my ability. In two successive semesters, I learned how to study, and how not to. I learned that getting lazy and skipping days could have dire consequences. I learned not to hate my body, that being overweight is not all bad if a person ends up in a freezing mountain lake. I learned not to procrastinate the things that mattered, and that problems need to be confronted, not ignored. I learned how to use my strengths (like writing) to compensate for my weaknesses (like math). I learned that I was smart enough to do difficult things, like teaching myself calculus because I couldn’t understand the professor’s accent. I learned that I can’t respect myself if I put in less than my best effort, even if I still get credit for doing my best. I also learned that evening and weekend classes tend to have more mature and focused students.

Did I need college to become a writer? No. I probably could have learned those lessons from life. Or maybe I wouldn’t have learned them at all. So college didn’t hurt, as long as I didn’t expect it to teach me everything I would need to know. College isn’t a magic bullet, or a fast track to a writing career. What we get out of college (or anything else) depends on what we put into it. And the best thing I think college has to teach us, particularly those students who go back to college after a few years in the workplace, is that we’re never too old to keep learning, and it’s never too late to pursue our dreams.

What dreams are you pursuing? How important is college education in reaching your goals?

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