All That Bad

Reasons to Remain blog

Tip one was “you do not back up your work enough.”

Tip two was “being a writer isn’t actually all that bad.”

Wait…isn’t it? It’s an interesting, hypnotising, terrifying question, for someone who spends a fair bit of their time scribbling down stories and another sizable chunk wondering whether anybody could want to read them. Especially a young person, in the latter stages of a broadly non-vocational university degree, who would really like to be able to get away with making things up for a living.

The tips came from my creative writing tutor, in our final class of the semester—my final university class in Australia. They were something of a riposte to the concluding lecture the night before, in which our lecturer, the brilliant Kim Wilkins, had sounded a note of caution to the huddled masses before her. Creative writing, she told us, is not a vocational course. It’s not dentistry, where you learn how to fix teeth, get a piece of paper allowing you to fix teeth, and then hunt around the job markets for a vacancy as a tooth-fixer.

This makes it a bit out of step with the latter-day graduate ideal. For the past thirty years, in Australia and worldwide, universities have ceased to be places where you learn and develop, and become places where you train. Schooling what gets you a job. And yet, while literature courses drop like flies in American and Australian (put in a pin in that bit) universities, professors of creative writing are being hired left, right and centre.

This doesn’t seem to make sense. Let’s review the data…

  1. Universities are increasingly geared towards vocational courses.
  2. Liberal arts degrees such as literature and writing are non-vocational.
  3. Creative writing degrees are thriving.

If A then B, A, therefore not-B.  Does not compute!

Part of the explanation is commercial. Mugs like me sign up for creative writing courses en masse, meaning that even if they don’t profit the markets or economy the way that a degree in Executive Business Fatcattery Banking (EXEBUSFACABA1104) might, they profit the universities plenty. And the reason we do that, is in part because it seems like easy marks, in (large) part because studying writing is rewarding and fun and fascinating, and maybe a little bit because we just don’t quite believe bullet point two. Loath as I am to contradict Prof. Wilkins, there’s definitely a part of me sitting thinking hah, more fool you, Kim. Just wait ‘til you see my books down the Co-Op Bookshop.

Not  that I entirely put my hypothetical success down to creative writing courses. I’m not saying that posting story outlines on the UQ discussion forum has turned me into Tolkien material. But I do take these courses with a few little ulterior motives in mind. I want to get better, thinks I naively, so that then I’ve got a better chance at writing things which people want to read.

Which is exactly what the eighty people around me in the lecture theatre are thinking too, not to mention hundreds more doing literature, writing and journalism courses at every single university in the world. Hence the constant notes of discouragement, the emphasis on transferable skills and other careerist gubbins. And then I get told, by a small-league but professional writer that writing isn’t actually that bad? Nice.

What he meant, he explained, was that although it may be true that only one person in a squillion actually gets to be Pratchett or Gaiman or…Stephanie Meyer, it’s not actually that impossible to make a living from wordsmithery, if you’re prepared to put a bit of grind in and accept that a fair whack of income will come from writing-related jobs—editing, writing copy, teaching at university creative writing courses—rather than directly from advances and royalty cheques. Furthermore, he noted that writing really is a field where dedication pays off—if your ten first published stories make nary a ripple, they’re still sitting there when number eleven catches someone’s eye, ready to be sold off again (tip five or six: keep control of your reprint rights) without you having to write another word except ‘yes’. And then if novel number three gets a little resurgence down the line (possibly likelier in this ebook age where things never go out of print) then that’s a little trickle of royalties coming in too.

All of which is really quite encouraging enough to reinforce my you know what, let’s actually try this and see if it works. So I’ve started to submit things to magazines (via the brilliant, in the hope of collecting those first few vital rejection letters, and I’ve got a wee novel to send around over the summer, and a novella which could be done by next week if I don’t get too distracted by, um, not having to fail university. Which has a year more to go, of course, but I’m not going to fall into the trap of laying scribbling things down aside for a year in the assumption I’ll pick it back up again. Got to keep the ball rolling.

To end on an aside (terrible literary practice or bold modernist statement? You decide!), how interesting is that stat about American and Australian universities adopting creative writing as their new favourite child, while the old ivory towers of the U-of-K are, as far as I know, still backing the old battleship of English Literature even as it founders amid the waves of vocationalism? I will be studying writing at Edinburgh next year, but only as a one-off component of an overall English Literature degree, whereas in Brisbane you can do an entire ‘extended major’ in creative writing, as well as a ‘writing, editing and publishing’ masters program. I’m optimistically going to hypothesize that maybe I’ve taken the best of both worlds—plenty of highbrow academic literary theory to allow me to learn from the greats and to fuel my natural inclination towards pretentious literature-as-high-art writing styles, and then a healthy injection of writing-centred pragmatism (‘writing actually isn’t all that bad’ ) from this brash young nation with its brash young universities.

If anyone’s actually read this far, I’d be interested to know what people think. Is there any point in a creative writing degree, even just if it forces you to focus on your creative potential? Is literature a more worthy course of uni-level study than writing genre fiction, or vice versa? Am I inevitably going to find that the more practical linguistics edge of my degree is the one that helps to shape my future, as I slave away my years studying the phonology of our forthcoming alien invaders? Is writing, actually, all that bad?

5 thoughts on “All That Bad

  1. I think it’s pretty obvious that writing isn’t bad. That’s like telling the sportsman that football is bad, or telling the artist that painting is bad. There are exceptions (drugs, drinking…) to the rule, but if people enjoy it and it’s not committing genocide/culling baby animals (or non-baby ones), etc, then it’s probably in the ‘A.O.K.’ catergory.

    Bad as a vocational career, though? I think this depends what your preferred idea of a career is. Through university (I actually disagree – perhaps because of the two universities I’ve been to – that vocational courses are what secondary education is increasingly being geared towards. If that were so, how come there are still so many Art Historians, English Literaturists, Philosophers, Artists, Historians etc churned out of the universty system these days? I’m not saying that having a degree in Portraiture or Medieval History or Surf Studies is useless. I don’t think it is. Some people will mould the vast knowledge they’ve accumulated about medieval monks to their careers. But unless they actually become medieval monks themselves, vocational they’re not. With such logic and the educational cuts that are happening here, you would expect the more non-vocational arts degrees to suffer most. However, here this is actually not the case – Geology, strangely, got the axe first.) I guess most people (yes, that last bracket was too long. Bad writer.) become acclimatised to the idea that career = graduate job, signing-on fee, starting salary, car at the end of the year, settling down, promotion, 2.5 kids, etc… and of course vocational degrees allow for this more than creative writing degrees (except the 2.5 kids, which I’m not sure anything physically allows for. ‘Which half do you want?’). But I personally don’t think that careers which don’t conform to this pattern are awful.

    I think I’ve been lucky, whilst at university, to be involved in things which are outside the university, too. Sometimes the people who haven’t (yet) been to university are, for me, the most inspirational. The Irish guy who decided that *where* he worked, rather than *how*, was more important to him, and now travels the world doing promotional work for the olympics. The guy from Bethleham who only discovered a love for soccer at 18 – too late to make a career as a player, but who is now, 12 years on, a professional football coach on the Arran Islands (100% jealous, btw). The 50 year old woman who went into the navy for her young life, realised how much damn SEA there is lying about the place, and that we’re not using it all that efficiently. So now she’s energetically harnessing wave power in the Orkneys and saving the world (one wave at a time). Like creative writing, these people have something they’re passionate about, and have not let a lack of vocational training get in their way of developing a steady career. I’d much rather my life conform to this pattern. Perhaps my writing will never sit alongside the Hungry Caterpillar, but these people have shown me you don’t need to be Alex Ferguson to love your professional career in soccer, and you don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to be an amazing scientist. (As for the Olympic dude, well, he’s just cool).

    That’s all kind of going off on a tangent and not answering the question though (examfail). Personally I think there is worth in a creative writing course, but that to approach university with the “rest of your life” career in mind is not appropriate for many people. It shouldn’t be accepted that it’s the norm to leave univeristy with a set idea about the rest of your life. As you say, it’s very unlikely that the majority of university creative writers will be recognised on a large scale as professional writers (I’m guessing many recognised writers didn’t go to university, let alone study creative writing). But I don’t think that means it’s useless – I think you just have to be open minded about what ‘being a writer’ is. Getting bogged down in the idea of a vocational career, and imposing this on to your creative work, is resticting (and just, well, boring, I think). Besides, the nature of being creative encourages experimentation and risk, as well as thoughtfulness and discapline, which are all very important skills in art and in life. It’s dangerous to become fixated on the idea of a ‘successful writer’ – potentially damaging to yourself, and not what a creative writing course really has any power to produce – just to encourage.

    That being said, now to don my habit, count my beads, exit my (wifi-enabled, don’t tell the abbot) beehive cell and pay my respects to Saint Benedict.

  2. P.S. Just before anyone jumps on my monk-back for being overly straight-edge, what I meant in thefirst paragraph was that drugs and alcohol are enjoyed but, especially in excess, cause damage similtaneously. This places them outside the monastic “A.O.K.” category. Didn’t want this point which people often disagree with my order over to taint the actual creative writing based argument.


  3. I struggled with and obsessed over and tortured myself about this for years and years and years. I’m not sure I’ve emerged with any mindblowing wisdom, but I did decide a few things.

    1. I am a writer, as much because I was born loving words as because I’ve simply decided to be one. And keep being one. Until I die or the planet implodes and I have to spend my days searching for radiation-free vegetables.

    2. I’m well aware that writing (and filmmaking) are ‘non-vocational’ or ‘sporadically-vocational’, and I am absolutely fine with making a supplementary income from teaching or editing or peddling false teeth in an Indian street market. Why not? I can’t imagine spending my life locked in a room with a pen. What a nightmare.
    As for filmmaking, playing and imagining and creating ‘for a living’ is a privilege I think you justifiably have to earn. I absolutely believe that every human being can and should live a creative life, but I wouldn’t fork out good money for every ugly mosaic bowl I see.

    Of course there are all the arguments about capital-A Art, but that’s a whole other, very long conversation.

    I’m not sure I learnt anything about writing in my undergrad degree. My ‘brash young university’ was more of a tired ’70s feminist party rehashing old cultural theory because post modernism is oh so clever but hasn’t introduced any ideas that are particularly useful. I think I learnt more by falling in love, travelling, and reaching borderline insanity a few times. I read the ‘highbrow literature’ too, but that’s because I’ve always enjoyed it.
    But perhaps I sound like a convict from the colonies. Perhaps I would benefit from few years of English Literature at Oxford. Who knows.
    I like the description a schoolteacher once gave me of university (one I wish I had found to be true): Uni is where you learn how to think.

  4. It’s good that you’ve found Australia to be more practical but I really don’t think you’re onto a bad thing at Edinburgh doing a more… academic course.

    The danger with both ways is that you can mistakenly believe that that is the ONLY way of learning and of course it isn’t.

    To be a good writer you’ll need to work hard, read everything, kiss ass and stay in the industry as much as you can. Doing a little editing or a little teaching will only harm your writing career if you take your eyes off the prize (which I imagine is a book deal and being able to find your novels in Waterstones, winning the Nobel, influencing future writers etc).

    Seriously though – there is no need to stress. From the sound of it you’re doing fine – I have full faith in you…


  5. Oh man. As someone graduating in TWO DAYS with a creative writing degree and no job prospects whatsoever, this is definitely on my mind. XD

    That said, I think there’s a ton of value in a writing degree. In this day and age (am I 60…?), it’s easier than ever to get your name out there and find a fan base, if you have the talent to draw readers in. The university helps you find like-minded individuals who can help you improve your work, which is the most valuable thing I’ve acquired in the past four years, but ultimately you’re the one who has to make it happen. And sometimes that means being okay with spending a few years waiting tables or writing product descriptions and whatnot in the meantime.

    But the real challenge behind having a creative writing degree, to me, is that people can be so judgmental about it. I am all too familiar with that oh-really-are-you-sure look I get every time I tell someone I’m a creative writing major, which I usually answer with an “I know, right?” just to shut them up. And therein lies the secondary value of a creative writing degree–you get a very, VERY thick skin. The people who can’t take criticism drop out early on and pursue something more “vocational.” And that thick skin is worth the world when you do get into the acceptance/rejection world.

    Ultimately, though, it’s about doing something that you love. The other day I met a friend’s roommate who’s in prelaw, and he asked me what my major was, and even though he still gave me the Look, what he said afterward really reaffirmed my faith in my career goals. He said, “Well, at least you’ll be happy.” And that’s what it all comes down to, really. Writing is what I want to do, and that’s the end of it.

    Incidentally, one of my good friends would LOVE to take EXEBUSFACABA1104. If it were real, he would probably take it twice and get honors, and then he’d be even more obnoxious than he already is. XD

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