Getting a degree in creative writing is both the best and worst decision I’ve ever made, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A lot of amazing and crappy things have happened along my writing journey. I was one of 5 poets accepted into my kickass MFA program my year. I now have a stable career as a full-time national magazine editor. But getting here wasn’t easy.
I’ve had stressful periods of unemployment that’ve made me seriously question the value of my education. I’ve had to borrow money, network (which is a nightmare for an introvert), face countless rejections, and a whole list of undignified things I won’t get into.
There is a lot to consider and a lot of risk when you decide to major in something like creative writing, painting, theater, dance, singing, or any type of fine art. So what have I learned between undergraduate and now? If I could go back in time and give myself advice, here’s what I would say:
1. Find what you love early.
Halfway through undergraduate, I finally asked myself: “What do I love? What will make me happy every day?” Many of us feel that happiness is a luxury, especially in these uncertain economic times. And by the time I asked myself these questions and switched majors, my classmates were ahead of me in pretty much every way, including graduate school applications, craft level, foundational knowledge, required reading, performance, and networking. It’s always good to be practical and weigh your options, but try to find a way to make your passions work for you instead of repressing them or being negative. Talk to people doing what you want to do and find out how they did it. Figure out what you can do with a CW degree if plan A fails.
2. Pursue it with everything you have.
Once you find out how your professors and other writers you admire got to where they are, hatch a game plan and ask the hard questions. Is your goal to go on and get an MFA or PhD? To teach? To write and edit? Be a celebrated novelist? Go for it! And whatever you do, do not give up. When you make that decision and act on it every day, everything will fall into place.
3. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve had this longtime fantasy of becoming a revered novelist whose work would live on for hundreds of years in true Shakespearian glory. So what happened? Well aside from the fact that I wasn’t even a poet or playwright at the time, all of the intro level fiction classes filled up before I could get into one. So I was forced to wait for the next semester and in the meantime take poetry and screenwriting courses. And boy, was I terrified. Little did I know that my first poetry class would change the entire trajectory of my life. Later, in graduate school, I went out on a limb and tried a creative nonfiction class and fell in love with that too. What I’m saying is that you should always try new things and push yourself out of your comfort zone. If you’re afraid or uncomfortable, it means something great is around the corner!
4. Let go of the ego.
As someone who has both taken and taught many an intro-level creative writing class, one of the best things you can do for yourself is leave the ego at the classroom door. No one is trying to hurt your feelings – quite the opposite. If you truly want to get better at this craft and make a living at it, you have to be open to criticism. When I was younger, this was an especially hard pill to swallow. You will never ever stop learning; you will never ever be at the finish line, and this is something all great writers know. If you get into freelancing, you will have to learn to be intuitive and figure out what your editor expects/wants and deliver it. If you want to write a successful book, you will have to understand what your readers like and don’t like. When you look at constructive criticism as a tool of success, critiques will be much easier to deal with.
5. Know what you’re getting into.
As you’re probably well aware, creative writing is not a lucrative field. On top of that, it is extremely competetive. Only a small few go on to earn PhDs, and out of those, few are offered full-time professorships. You will experience tons of rejection along the way from your workshop peers, you professors, the programs you want to get into, and from publishers.
One of my graduate school professors kept a massive binder full of rejection letters from publishers he submitted to. He is now an extremely successful novelist, but he keeps the rejections to show students how many “no’s” you’ll hear before you hear “yes”. Without publications, you don’t have much of a future as a creative writing professor, so you need to constantly submit your work. Eventually, someone will say YES, and you will be reminded of why all of this is worth it.
6. More rejection.
The first year I applied to graduate schools, every single one rejected me. That stung quite a bit, but my portfolio was shit, and I knew it. Since you can only apply once a year to MFA programs, I got an office job. I did that for a year, and it made me realize how badly I wanted that MFA. I worked and worked on that portfolio. I re-took the GRE as well as the classes I hadn’t done so well in. I went to my former teachers for advice and letters of rec. I made sure my personal essay reflected my personality and my passion for poetry in a creative way. When I applied the next year, I got into 3 great programs! What I learned from that is that you can choose to let rejection get you down, or you can use it to motivate you. In the end, that year of sitting out helped me realize what I wanted and made me count my blessings when it finally happened.
7. Be adaptable.
This is the strongest piece of advice I can give. Learn everything you can about everything. Read constantly. Concentrate on your craft. Build a portfolio that you can distribute after you graduate or start doing freelance gigs while you’re still in school. If you don’t get into graduate school or become the next JK Rowling right away, you need to have a backup plan. Freelancing is a great way to make money, and you can even work from home. But most companies don’t care about your short story. They want marketing and ad copy or articles on business, beauty, fitness, tech, etc. If you love fitness or tech, write about it! Also, practice writing on topics you know nothing about. If you can do that and get fast at it, you’ll be just fine.
8. There isn’t a limit to the writing club.
A huge flaw many of us have when pursuing our dreams is believing there are only so many spots for success at the table. Yes, only a few students will be accepted to such and such program. Yes, only a few of the PhDs from that class will be offered full-time jobs when they graduate. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can have whatever you want in life if you work for it. That doesn’t necessarily mean you will get it on your first try. Sometimes you have to prove just how badly you want something before others listen, but eventually, they will listen.
There is much more to be said about creative writing degrees, but these 8 points are a great place to begin. Don’t be afraid of taking risks in life, especially when you’re young. Find your joy, and make it your everyday.
Until next time!