“When you date someone, it’s like you’re taking one long course in who that person is, and then when you break up, all that stuff becomes useless. It’s the emotional equivalent of an English degree.”
— How I Met Your Mother
“What do you do with a BA in English?”
— Avenue Q
Before delving into day jobs/other sources of income specifically, we’re pausing at the ‘what should I study at college if I want to Be A Writer?’ question. Because every summer, which is when I do most of my teaching-to-teenagers, the question comes up.
I am a believer in Doing What You Love (Without Completely Starving). I am also a great believer in mocking English degrees. But it’s sort of like making fun of your siblings – you’re allowed do it, as soon as someone outside the family tries it, you leap into defensive, protective mode.
Aside from a handful of degrees, most are an academic rather than vocational qualification. (Case in point which most people tend to forget: a law degree is not a vocational qualification either. Academic exams are not professional exams.) They indicate that you have certain ‘transferrable skills’ which you will never be quite sure that you have, and a certain level of knowledge in a particular subject. They are very rarely a guarantee of a job or a particular job. And when there are degrees that seem to open countless doors for people, always remember that the situation is likely to change in the years it takes to obtain that degree. As someone who started college in the good times, ended in the bad times, and also as someone who started an allegedly more useful degree (only slightly though) and finished with an allegedly impractical degree, I am immensely glad to have studied something I loved. I am immensely glad to not have put myself through years of doing something ‘because it’d get me a good job’ when for many people those good jobs did not happen. There are a lot of things in life you have to do when you don’t want to – then there are things we add to that list. Be aware of when you’re adding to the list, and why you’re doing it.
All that being said, I use what I learned as an English Literature student very infrequently – both as a writer and as a creative writing teacher. English teaches you how to analyse literature. It teaches you critical theory. This is fun and occasionally headache-inducing (hi, postcolonial theory, I’m looking at you) but it’s approaching a text from the other side. As reader rather than as writer. As critic rather than as writer. As commentator on that finished work rather than a writer trying to figure out how the author got there.
We are, in this country, starting to see undergraduate creative writing programmes of the kind that are far more popular in the US, but for the most part undergraduate teaching in English is not like in school – it’s the Leaving Cert Paper 2 stuff, not paper 1.
All that being said, I don’t think English is a bad choice for an aspiring writer, but it does surprise me how many people seem to think it’s specifically training for aspiring writers. It gets you reading a lot, and it gets you writing essays. These are good things.
Is it a necessary prerequisite for Being A Writer, or a quicker pathway to it? Nope.
I think something in the arts and humanities is probably useful for most aspiring/practicing writers. Lots of reading, lots of essay-writing, and lots about people and culture. But then again, business and the social sciences are a lot about people and culture. And so is science, with an additional ‘and the universe’ in there.
What interests you enough to study it for three/four years? What about how it’s taught or assessed appeals to you? What job or further training opportunities does it not give you? What kind job or further training opportunities might it give you? (And if you’re thinking about the latter – what kind of day job might suit you, as a writer?)