The Problems and Virtues of a University Creative Writing Education


My educational journey has been a strange one. I alternated work as a freelance writer with time as a full-time student over the last seven years, and I finally have a degree—along with a batch of honors and extras that, from my current vantage point, I simply don't give a damn about. These years of getting a creative writing education at the university have taught me a lot ... but one of the lessons is that our system isn't entirely functional.

What's education again?

Let's start with a simple discussion of education's purpose: Education in any field is designed to equip you to be more effective in that field. A law degree that doesn't help you practice law is worthless, a business degree that makes you no better at business is bullshit. So do English degrees make people better at ... Englishing?

And here we have the first major dilemma. While we can say that an English program aimed at creative writing education is designed to make people better at being authors and poets, those aren't the typical "professions" of those who graduate with creative writing degrees. The average author gets $6000 per year, and that's grossly inflated by the bestsellers and breakaway hits. So what is the English "career"?

Rather than simply teaching people the craft of writing, we need to teach them the business of it.

My point isn't that there isn't a career for those with a creative writing degree. Rather, it's that university education fails to respond to that pivotal question. Those in other fields, even obscure ones, can enter school knowing only what they feel passionate about but leave with a sense of their career options. For those who pursue creative writing, we've basically boiled it down to two things: Take a big gamble on becoming a best-selling author or enter the over-saturated world of academia with the hopes of teaching others to write.

Writing is a business.

Rather than simply teaching people the craft of writing, we need to teach them the business of it. Yes, we need to craft beautiful sentences and use profound imagery. Yes, we need to understand the power of metaphor and lyricism. But no, that isn't the end of the process.

There's networking, promoting your work, understanding what's selling in today's market, figuring out how to approach publishers and agents successfully, understanding the self-publishing and traditional publishing options available in the digital era, and so on and so forth. Whether creative writers want to move on to freelance gigs, self-publishing, ghost writing, running a literary journal, or pursuing traditional publication, there's a lot we could do to teach them. But, at least in my experience, those elements are missing from the educational process.

Another aspect that was lacking? Bringing work from conception to fruition. I don't mean that creative writing programs don't ask students to finish work, but assignments typically end with a fairly rough draft of a fairly small piece. While short stories and single poems are great practice, they're also an incomplete representation of what creative writers will have to do. The idea of creating and polishing a longer, publishable work is typically reserved for MFA programs—and even those don't teach the important business skills needed to follow through.

And what about all the psychological stuff that goes into managing big projects? Creative types tend to be prone to anxiety and depression, and the work they're expected to do—repeatedly facing rejection, facing massive deadlines, trying to create something masterful—is only going to compound those issues. We need to teach writers how to remain effective in the midst of all this; we need to teach writers how to deal with being a writer.

And what's with all this other crap we're learning?

The entire purpose of a university as opposed to a trade school is that the university gives you something (allegedly) "universal." Every school's core requirements vary, but you probably have some substantial math, science, and other "core" classes. I strongly believe that forcing these classes on everyone is a mistake.

That's not to say they don't have a value. I myself encountered some amazing stuff when I took an astronomy class, which I probably wouldn't have done if it wasn't for needing that third science class. I wound up writing a fifty page piece of creative nonfiction about Venus because I was so fascinated with the way the planet's reality clashed with our mythology. And when passion sparks like that, it's great.

But the way to make that happen isn't to cram a checklist down the throats of every student who walks into your institution. The way to do that is to tease and tantalize students, giving them some exploratory requirements where you let them get their feet wet in a variety of topics. From there, let them make the call. Require a certain number of classes, but don't try to dictate what's "important," especially if you're going to include irrelevant bullshit like factoring polynomial equations.

Yes, some basics are important for having intelligent conversations with people in other fields, but the bulk of time in these classes are spent on details—like mitochondrial DNA and the atomic composition of magnesium. These details will only be remembered by those who give a damn about the topic ... and the rest of us are just jumping through hoops, eager to forget everything we learned in the goddam class.

And then there are literature courses.

That entire hoop-jumping thing I was talking about? The whole checklist mentality that prevents any substantive learning? That is what most university study of literature is based on. Most of these literature courses may as well be renamed "Cliffnotes 101" with the way they function. Hell, I had two separate classes spend one whole day on T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and that's a poem that could easily take months of attentive study to really understand.

We need to spend more time teaching people how to dissect the works of great authors, not just breeze through a list of works from a given era. And I don't just mean teaching people to examine literature for its various meaning and metaphors, as your standard critical theory courses do, but teaching students to read as writers, hunting for the why and how of a literary work's power.

But there's lots we do right.

I don't mean to imply that there's nothing beneficial about getting a university-level education in creative writing. Here are just a few of the positives:

  • You get to connect with others who are passionate about writing. These peers can offer social support as you write, can give their suggestions on what to read, and serve as valuable connections later in life.
  • Many universities offer the chance to get work published in a campus literary journal, or even work on the staff, and those experiences offer a great deal of benefit.
  • You get the chance to work with multiple professors who are also writers. You get to see varying approaches to writing, different workshopping styles.
  • The threat of bad grades forces you to write. Sometimes, you (we!) just need someone to set a goddam deadline so we actually produce something rather than waiting for a perfect burst of inspiration to strike in the imaginary future.
  • You are forced to workshop pieces over and over and over again. You spend more time with work, get different ideas and perspectives, and have the chance to get a sense of what your peers are producing.
  • Between the workshops and deadlines, you are forced to write a whole hell of a lot. Nothing is more important than actually writing when it comes to becoming a better writer.
  • Your basic written communication skills improve as you practice writing. That's inevitable. And, as a result, employers will love you. Written communication skills are in demand in a variety of fields, so you don't need to freak out about never cashing out on your time at the university.

But the single most important advantage of the university creative writing experience is this: A university education offers one of the few opportunities to get funding—through grants, scholarships, and loans—that lets you focus on improving your craft. Nothing in the digital world can offer you that.

So, my entire damn point is...

A university education in creative writing is imperfect. There's a lot of space for institutions to better serve our up-and-coming writers: the course-load spends a lot of time on useless shit and fails to address crucial aspects of being a writer. And, no matter what you've heard, there's nothing sacrosanct or mandatory about a creative writing education at universities.

With all the online resources, you can get a quality education in creative writing by making use of online communities like this one, by brushing up on famous literature at your own pace, and by pursuing your own projects. And despite how often we tout the value of ye olde degree, anyone who pursues a writing career will be evaluated based on the quality of their work, not the institution that gave them a fancy sheet of paper.

Robbie Blair

Column by Robbie Blair

Robbie Blair is a world-wandering author and poet who blogs about his adventures, the writing craft, and more. He was doomed to write when, at just three years old, his English-professor father taught him the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Robbie has since published more than a dozen creative pieces in literary journals (including Touchstones, Enormous Rooms, Warp + Weave, and V Magazine). Robbie Blair's website is loaded with travel narratives; original creative work;  writerly humor; pretty pictures; writing games, lessons, tips, and exercises; and other uber-nifty™ content.

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L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami May 24, 2015 - 9:07pm

I wonder how you'd learn the business end. I would self-pub, except I don't want to be one of those that floods feeds with "buy my book, buy my book." If it's any good, it should stand well on it's own.

Amanda Duhig's picture
Amanda Duhig August 28, 2015 - 8:10pm

I'm currently doing an English literature and creative writing degree. Since I'm studying in the UK and not the US, I'm fortunate enough to not have to study the "other crap" and focus on my writing, but this article is spot-on. The typical reason most people attend university is to start them on a career path, and creative writing degrees fail to do that. Nobody on my course that I have spoken to about career prospects knows how to market themselves and their work, or even where to start. It's frustrating, as my school's English department is excellent, and there are several published authors on the faculty who could provide valuable information, but fail to do so.