People often ask me whether I think a formal education is necessary to a successful writing career. A degree certainly helps, but no, it’s not necessary. There are master writers who did not finish high school and plenty never went to college.
I want to be clear: I fully support higher education. If you pull me aside and ask whether I think you should go to college, I’m going to say, “Yes, of course you should!” I encounter plenty of writers (and other professionals) who lack confidence because they feel they need that degree to back up their abilities. That’s just not so. If you want to write, you should write, regardless of whether you have a degree.
Keep in mind that while a degree is helpful (and you certainly learn a lot of valuable things in college), it’s neither a license to write nor a guarantee that you’ll be successful. It doesn’t even ensure that you’ll write well. Whether you pursue higher education or not, it’s important to study the craft of writing. You can read books, join a writing group, or take a creative writing class.
Lessons from Creative Writing Class
Today, I thought I’d share a few lessons I learned when I took a creative writing class in college. This might provide some insight if you’re currently weighing whether to go to college or whether to study creative writing in college. This is by no means an exhaustive list; I’m going to highlight the most valuable lessons I learned — things that stuck with me and altered my life as a writer for the better. You’ll note that all of these are things you can learn outside of a classroom setting, if necessary.
1. Oh, so that’s what you mean by freewriting.
The first few days of my creative writing class, we spent ten to twenty minutes freewriting as soon as class started. About two weeks later, the instructor asked if anyone wanted to read one of their freewrites out loud. A volunteer stood up and started reading, and I realized I had been doing it wrong all along.
My freewrites were nothing more than diary entries. I simply wrote about whatever was going on in my life. But my classmate had written a mesmerizing stream-of-consciousness piece that sounded like something out of a dream. It was poetic! Oh, I thought, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.
I had actually thought it odd that we were writing journals in class. Now it made sense! In creative writing class, I learned to freewrite every day as part of my writing practice and as a tool to generate raw material for poetry and story ideas. It had a huge impact on my writing and marked a time when my work and my writing practices went through dramatic improvements.
2. Some people work out with weights; we do writing exercises.
Writing exercises are where my technical skills saw the most progress. When you write whatever you want, whenever you want, there are aspects of the craft that inevitably escape you. Writing exercises and assignments forced me to think more strategically about my writing from a technical standpoint. It wasn’t about getting my ideas onto the page; it was about setting out to achieve a specific mission with my writing.
Many writing exercises that we did in class imparted valuable writing concepts; these were the exercises I treasured most because they helped me see my writing from various angles. Writing exercises also gave me a host of creativity methods that I use to this day to keep writer’s block at bay.
Finally, all those exercises I did back in college ultimately inspired my own book of creative writing exercises; although the inspiration came from poetry and fiction writing courses as well as the creative writing class that I took.
3. The writing community is a treasure.
When I was in high school and a teacher would announce a quiz or a writing assignment, the students would let out a collective sigh and begrudgingly get to work. In creative writing class, when the instructor said, “Let’s do a writing exercise,” everybody got excited. We couldn’t pull out our notebooks and pens fast enough!
Here’s the thing about a creative writing class: everyone in the room wants to be there. They chose to be there. So there’s a lot of enthusiasm and passion. For the first time in my life, I found myself surrounded by people with whom I shared a common interest.
More importantly, there’s plenty of support and camaraderie. Prior to taking this class, I had shown a few pieces of my writing to friends and family, who mostly just nodded and said that it was good or that I was talented. In class, I was surrounded by other writers who were eager and interested to read what I had written, and the best part was that they offered suggestions that would make my writing even better! I can’t stress enough how warm I’ve found writers to be over the years. It’s an honor to be part of such a supportive community.
4. Nothing can replace a mentor.
In college, instructors who taught writing classes were all published authors. As a student, I had direct access to writers who had gone through all the rigors of everything that happens in the writing process: drafting, revising, submitting, publishing, and marketing.
These instructors were also extremely well versed in literature and the craft of writing (as they should be — that’s their job, after all). And there is nothing — no book, video, or article — that beats direct access to an experienced professional.
5. Right place, right time.
Perhaps the best lesson I gleaned from creative writing class was that I was in the right place at the right time. This was a feeling that came from within, a certainty that I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing. The semester that I took a creative writing class was packed with odd coincidences and epiphanies. I was often overwhelmed with feelings of serendipity, and I stopped questioning whether I had made the right choice in pursuing creative writing as my field of study.
Alternatives to a Creative Writing Class
As I mentioned, most of these lessons can be learned outside of a creative writing class. You can discover writing techniques and strategies from books, blogs, and magazines. You can find a community and a mentor online or in local writing groups. And you can experience a sense of certainty just about anywhere.
I definitely recommend taking a creative writing class if you can, and if you’re truly dedicated to writing and intend on going to college, then it only makes sense to study it formally. However, for writers who can’t or haven’t gone to college, I say this: find another route. A creative writing class or a creative writing degree will be helpful to building a writing career, but these things are not essential.