10 Things I Wish I’d Learned In My Creative Writing Degree

When I finished my BA in English with a focus in Creative Writing, I was convinced I knew everything. Then I went to try to get a short story published in something besides the college run literary magazine and realized I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. For a while I was really angry about how little I came out of school knowing how to do. (Some days I still am.) It felt like my entire degree had been geared towards learning how to write what my professors wanted me to write, certainly not for me. I learned how to write for the deadline, make the changes the professor wanted, and to turn in a paper on time.

Learning how to turn things in on a deadline is a great skill to have learned, but I still get upset when I think about all the things I wished I’d learned in my program, and the things I wished I’d even known to ask about! Here’s a list of 10 things I wish I had learned about with my degree.

10. How to find magazines open for submissions

Aside from flyers posted in the common areas, and professors passing out handouts about journals, how do I find the places that accept them? What’s a SASE? What do you mean a cover letter; what’s suppose to be in that? What should I include in my bio? Is my title and name included in the word count? What’s a standard manuscript format? What’s multiple submission versus simultaneous submission? I don’t just throw my poems into the air and they’ll teleport to a magical poetry magazine?

9. The publishing process

What is the process that something has to go through to be published? Who looks at it first and what happens from there? What is an acquisitions editor? Copy edit versus line edit? Who will I talk to if I have a question? How do I put something into an ebook format? What are my options? What’s the difference between a small press, a mid-level press, a big-six, and self publishing? What’s an average contract look like? It’s all instant right?

8. Writer Beware!

So 90% of profit to the publisher and 100 year exclusive rights are normal in a contract right? Also selling my first-born is just standard, yeah? You always have to pay someone to publish something for you. You pay them a lot of money and the nice vanity press makes magic for you, right?

7. Business behind writing

Tax write-offs? What are those? What do you mean taxes exist when you make money from writing things? It’s not just a magical pot of money? What do you mean keeping up with receipts and contracts? What are these contracts for anyway? I’ll just sign it and not really read it, cause it’s not important, right?

6. That you don’t have to drink to write

Well my classmates regularly come to class drunk and no one cares so that’s just the norm right? All writers drink, it’s just a natural part of life and if you don’t get drunk to write, you’re doing it totally wrong.In fact, hell let’s have class at the bar! That will make life easier for everyone! What do you mean you don’t want your classmate’s drunken critique?

5. It’s okay to write in more than one area

You mean I don’t have to say ‘Yes I only write poetry.’ and never take a fiction class or touch a short story lay out? You mean I never learn anything about screenplays because none of the classes think it’s worth talking about? I won’t burst into flames if I write a poem and a short story in the same day?

4. Not all advice is good.

You mean ‘Stop writing genre crap’ isn’t good advice? ‘Stop writing dead grandma poems’ isn’t good advice? What makes good advice then? If the teacher tells me that this character is stock and boring then I have to chop them and redo everything until every person in the world is pleased, right?

3. Read whatever you want

You mean there are things beside the classics? I can read things other than Shakespeare and still be considered literate? I can even read… GASP….romance and sci-fi and it’s okay? No one will revoke my writer status and shun me forever?

2. More grammar

We don’t actually need a course on grammar because that’s not important. We’ll just throw some comma worksheets into English 1101 and that’ll be fine.

1. GENRE FICTION IS FINE

I won’t burst into a non-writer pile of goo the second that I write something beside ‘literary’ fiction? How is your work not ‘horror genre crap’ won’t be a question I’ll ever have to answer to graduate?  You mean people read things beside literary fiction?

 

 

I understand that programs can’t teach everything but to me, a creative writing program not allowing genre fiction and constantly disparaging it only hurts the students. Also, never teaching students how to submit their work sets them up for failure. A lot of these are things that I could have (and eventually did) learn on my own, but many of them I didn’t even think to ask about or look for until well after I’d graduated.

What I learned in my program was how to cater towards a small audience and how to have my stories controlled and reigned in. I learned that genre is ‘crap’ and that literary writing is the only thing worth reading or writing. I learned that workshops can be incredibly toxic (‘This is a dead grandma poem so I didn’t waste my time reading it. You suck.’), and that writing is meant to exist in a void where it is just discussed for its academic merit. I learned how to recite the classics, and follow in the path carved out into the world of the academic.

What I’ve learned is that I don’t need a degree to learn how to write (in fact I’m beginning to think it’s better that way). What you need is a hardcore dedication to your work. You need to write every day and believe in your own vision. If you don’t know something you hunt down the information and devour it whole without waiting for someone else to teach it to you.

So in the end, I don’t necessarily blame my program, but I can’t say I can recommend it to anyone else. Learn what inspires you and scrap the rest.

A piece of paper given to you by a university will never dictate your ability to write.

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13 Comments »

  1. Robby Said:

    I love your #1 (mostly because I’ve heard the story behind it). And I agree that all of these things apply to said degree.

    • Andi Judy Said:

      Hhaha yeah… let’s just say it left a lasting impression.

  2. My B.A. in creative writing was similarly deficient–but that was many moons ago. I’m not sure when you got yours, but it’s sad that we writers have to learn so much on the job. I think it’s the continuing tension between academia and the commercial world. I don’t think academics in any field really like to get their hands dirty in commerce. Maybe we should establish trade schools for writers…

    • Andi Judy Said:

      Oh man, a trade school for writers would be incredible. I’ve heard great things about the MFA at Seton Hall MFA program and its focus on ‘popular fiction’ that really seems great.

  3. glenkrisch Said:

    Reblogged this on Glen Krisch and commented:
    So much truth in this post. So , you get your writing degree, hit the streets, then realize you don’t know anything about selling to professional markets

    • glenkrisch Said:

      I liked your post so much I reblogged it. Hope you don’t mind! It’s funny, when I was in college I was also learning the semantics of submitting on my own through trial and error.

      • Andi Judy Said:

        I’m happy it struck a cord with you! I think a lot of the learning about submitting does come through trial and error but some guidelines would be great to learn alongside that shiny degree.

  4. D.A. Adams Said:

    Andi, you know my take.

    • Andi Judy Said:

      Hahaha that I do. And I am the wiser for knowing it.

  5. Laura W. Said:

    “I learned that workshops can be incredibly toxic (‘This is a dead grandma poem so I didn’t waste my time reading it. You suck.’),”
    SERIOUSLY? Fucking really??? How insensitive can someone be??? This is supposedly why professors exist — to moderate this kind of crap and keep the workshops NON-toxic!!

    Ugh.

    I was quite lucky to have an internship during college with our literary magazine (Outrageous Fortune), on the editor side of things. That’s how I learned most of what I know about cover letters and stuff, though my creative writing prof was good about explaining the business of things to us as well. Based on submissions I got to see, not everyone gets that education. Luckily, we were in a position to be able to write back to students and gently remind/request them to follow guidelines, use a cover letter, etc. But the professional world doesn’t do that.

    • Andi Judy Said:

      Absolutely. It’s great when a place does take the time to send helpful advice, but a lot of students end up running blindly into the submission world, get overwhelmed, discouraged, and quit.

      • Laura W. Said:

        The Internet is a valuable resource for students, too, but either they don’t know enough from profs to sort good advice from bad — or they’ve been told the line that your work speaks for itself and/or that they’re too good to need advice. Then I know others who are just afraid to ask, b/c that means admitting that they don’t know “the secret” or whatever. Writing and publishing isn’t a secret power people have. I think a lot of this has to do with the myth behind writing — that it’s not a “real” job (so you don’t have to be professional) and that the process of writing is almost mythical and lofty and all that (so it’s above professionalism). That’s just what I’ve seen, though.


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