ENGLISH MAJORS, in 140 CHARACTERS (or less)
So, yesterday, as I was driving from Santa Fe to Scottsdale, I flipped through Twitter posts while at a rest stop, and picked up a question directed to me by a young woman contemplating college. She asked me, “If I want to write, should I take an English major? I thought that might be good because I love to read.”
I replied—hastily (because that’s how you reply at a rest stop with 140 characters at your disposal)—“’English degree = ‘want fries with that?’ Pick something that will make you enough money that you can write what you want.”
I saw a few replies at the next rest stop—half agreeing with the basic thing I’d said and the other half from offended English majors. <g>
OK. First off, my apologies to any offended English majors. Really.
For the record, two of my three (very intelligent and successful) children had English majors.
The “want fries with that?” is actually a direct wry quote from my elder daughter, who got an English degree from Stanford (with two semesters exchange to Oxford), had a wonderful time with it (I was very envious) and after considering job prospects over the summer after graduation, got an accelerated nursing degree and became an RN.
My son, also an English major, is a successful novelist and comic-book writer. You can ask him what his opinion is on the value of an English degree to (and this is IMPORTANT; remember it) _to someone who wants to write for a living_.
(People who say that they want to write usually mean “write novels” (or perhaps screenplays or poetry, etc.)—but “creative” writing, rather than technical writing. (Very few institutions offer classes in technical writing, which is too bad, because there’s an enormous market for it.))
When the kids (the third one got a BS in Biochemistry and an MBA. I can’t even describe her job adequately, but she can do it remotely, from anywhere in the world and they pay her a lot to do it) were getting ready to go to college and the dreaded “What major shall I pick?” reared its head, my husband and I told them, “Between us, we have five university degrees. We don’t use any of them. Don’t worry about it.”
The point being, what you major in in college is usually not the huge, life-defining, forever-after moment that most college-bound kids think it is. More on this in a moment.
Now, speaking from my own personal background and experience…
I’m a scientist. I have a BS in Zoology, an MS in Marine Biology, a Ph.D. in Ecology, and a Doctor of Humane Letters degree that the university gave me when they wanted a free commencement speaker (I was honored by the recognition, but I don’t usually list it on my c.v.), and I worked full time as a university professor (and almost full time as a freelance technical writer) for twelve years before quitting to write novels fulltime. (My husband’s two degrees are in business).
I have kind of a highly developed sense of curiosity, though, and therefore ended up with minors in Chemistry, Music, and…English. In fact, I had 26 hours of class credit in English as an undergraduate; I could easily have done a double major in Biology and English, but didn’t see any reason to do so. The point here being that I do actually know what they teach you in university English classes. (Or, rather, what they taught in 1970-73. Perhaps content has altered significantly; always a possibility.)
Of all this assorted education, the Music part was the most lastingly valuable—I met my husband in the French Horn section of the University Marching Band.
OK. So let’s return to the actual Point at Issue—which is _not_ “Is an English degree any good?” (Any degree is worth what you put in to it and how you use the skills you acquire.) The point at issue is the question I was asked—IF you want to write (creatively) for a living, do you need an English degree?
To which the answer is, Heck no.
Try this: make a quick list of a dozen or so authors you admire. Google them and see what their educational backgrounds and employment histories are. Let’s see: just a few authors who spring to mind (i.e., their books are on top of the pile nearest my desk…let’s look…
Ian Rankin – Ian actually did major in Literature at the University of Edinburgh. His jobs, prior to making it as a novelist, included “grape picker, swineherd, taxman, alcohol researcher, hi-fi journalist, college secretary and punk musician in a band called the Dancing Pigs.” [His quote.]
J.K. Rowling – Degree in French (with minors in Greek and German). Taught English (as a foreign language) in Portugal, taught French in England, briefly. Was living on welfare benefits when she wrote the first Harry Potter book (for which she was paid $4000. See note on writing income, below).
Christopher Brookmyre – “Attended University of Glasgow” (no details as to major). A brief excerpt from an interview:
“I get jealous when I hear about the reading lists in English classes now. When I was at school, English did seem like a prescription for putting kids off literature. The notion of studying texts that we could relate to seemed totally distant. Shakespeare is a particular bugbear of mine. Reading it flat off the page - or, even worse, acting it out in class - seems designed to make it unappealing. Listening to Macbeth being annihilated by a bunch of semi-literate Glaswegians for hours on end kind of puts you off.
Apart from the "Scottish play", being Scottish wasn't really allowed to be a factor in what we studied. There didn't seem to be a lot of Scottish fiction around at the time; certainly not the vernacular fiction of the kind I write. Scottish slang was discouraged. But I was a voracious reader outside class. My mum, who's a schoolteacher herself, says that the kids who read don't need to be taught English, and the kids who don't can't be.”
Stuart MacBride – (in his own words):
“…Here followed an aborted attempt to study architecture at Herriot Watt in Edinburgh, which proved to be every bit as exciting and interesting as watching a badger decompose. If you’ve never tried it, I can wholly recommend giving it a go (watching mouldy badgers falling to bits, not architecture). So I gave up the life academic and went a-working offshore instead. That involved a lot of swearing as I recall. Swearing and drinking endless cups of tea. And I think I had Alpen every morning for about a year and a half. Can’t look at a bowl of the stuff now without getting the dry boak, sod how regular it keeps you. After my stint offshore I had a bash at being a graphic designer, a professional actor, an undertaker, a marketing company’s studio manager, a web designer, programmer, technical lead… Then last, but by all means least, finally circling the career drain by becoming a project manager for a huge IT conglomerate.”
A.S. Byatt – education described (by Wikipedia) as “She went on to Newnham College, Cambridge, Bryn Mawr College in the United States, and Somerville College, Oxford. Byatt lectured in the Department of Extra-Mural Studies of the University of London (1962–71), the Central School of Art and Design and from 1972 to 1983 at University College London.
Sarah Dunant – Cambridge (History and Theatre). Worked as an English teacher and nightclub hostess in Tokyo. Worked for the BBC, producing an arts magazine, then on and off in broadcasting/radio—a career she sustained while writing novels.
Try looking up a few of your favorite writers and see where they came from, academically speaking. Also what relevance their educational background had to their immediate employment prospects—and finally, to their success as a writer.
But you see what I mean? You don’t need a degree in English to be a novelist. To make a living as a novelist, the _only_ thing you need is the ability to write a good novel. And no educational institution in the world can teach you that. (Honest. If they could, there would be lots more good novels in the world than there are.)
People think writers have Secrets. Basically, we don’t; anything a writer knows how to do is right there on the page. But there is _one_ big and truly important secret:
Nothing will teach you to write except the act of putting words on paper.
Now, an English degree program can teach you assorted interesting things. Cultural history, exposure to new authors/styles/cultural backgrounds, critical thinking, analytical thinking (not necessarily the same things) skim/speed-reading, ability to write good essays on excruciatingly boring subjects… (sorry, sorry…this is my personal experience, remember…)
Few English programs are oriented toward writing, though. Of the eight or nine English classes I took in college (I tested out of the first-year classes where they teach you the stuff you should have learned in high school—if not earlier—about grammar, punctuation and basic composition), only two had to do with writing. Both were “Creative Writing” (I and II), and those were valuable—not because I learned anything memorable, but because they forced me to write stuff to turn in.*
The Lit classes…well, it depends. If you haven’t read a lot, then yeah, Lit classes are probably helpful and/or interesting, in terms of showing you what’s out there and guiding you in finding new things you wouldn’t know to look for. If you do read a lot on your own, you’re less likely to get a great deal out of them. (Like I said—anything a writer can do is there on the page. If you read a lot, you can probably learn to see it without a teacher pointing it out to you. And there are lots of good reading lists online, on any subject you could name.) They won’t do much toward teaching you to write yourself, save (possibly) expose you to authors from whom you might learn.
Now, all education is good insofar as it gives you experience in thinking, and (you’ll be glad to hear) English programs are no exception. <g> But a college major just doesn’t define your life. Neither does it define your employment career, unless you enter a certified profession.
(My sister graduated from Harvard Law and is, reasonably enough, a lawyer, with a tenured chair at a well-known university. She’s a famous person in her own field and I’m hugely proud of her. She _did_ need a degree in Law, though; you just can’t practice that profession without a piece of paper saying you have the requisite knowledge to perform it. Ditto being a doctor, a dentist, a CPA, and a handful of other important professions. Being a writer? Naaaaah…. You can’t kill anybody, get them arrested for tax evasion or eff up their root canal by writing a bad novel, so nobody makes you get a license to write one.)
OK, that’s English degrees. Now, employment opportunities… Writing creatively is One Dicey Proposition. You might get lucky. But you might spend years scribbling industriously along without a great deal of income. (You might want to look at this interesting recent survey on Writers’ Incomes: http://www.jimchines.com/2017/02/2016-novelist-income-results-1/ ) This might be OK, if it’s just you—but if you have a spouse, a family? Six dogs?
What I mean is, if you want to write for a living, it’s a good idea to have a decent day job so you won’t starve while you’re getting there, or feel intense pressure to Finish Something So I Might Get Paid. And while I would never say English majors never end up with good jobs in the fullness of time, as the result of their good use of the skills they learned…have a look through the employment ads, and tell me how many are looking for people with a degree in English?
Because that was the question being addressed: “If I want to write for a living, is it a good idea to major in English?”
Now, if the young lady who asked me the original question had emailed it to me, she would likely have got back a version of the above. Since she asked me on Twitter…well, it’s Twitter.
*I don’t normally talk about charities and programs I support, but fwiw, I do support an ongoing two-year graduate scholarship in Creative Writing at my old alma mater. It’s in the English Department.