Day jobs and writers (4)

“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?)

About clairehennessy

Writer (mostly YA fiction), creative writing teacher, tea drinker, book junkie. View all posts by clairehennessy

6 responses to “Day jobs and writers (4)

  • Ellen Brickley

    Thanks for this post, Claire. As someone with not just a BA but an MA in English (the MA is kind of not my fault – my father died suddenly five weeks before my BA finals and I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving college as well) I spend what feels like half my life explaining why I did it.

    The true answer is because anytime I saw anyone studying English Lit while I was doing anything else, I was so bitterly jealous of them that I knew I’d never be any use studying anything else until I got English Lit out of my system. That suggests there ought to be a vaccination programme. . . That said, I don’t regret it. I did for a while (I graduated during the boom and everyone had great, well-paying jobs while I was unemployed) but I’ve come to really value the flexibility that a general qualification gave me.

    And I’m with you on the post-colonial theory. I skipped Eco-criticism completely – don’t tell anyone.

    • clairehennessy

      There is always a sense that one must justify the decision to study English – as well as that strange thing that happens when people hear you’ve studied English and then give you a funny look when you haven’t read every single book they mention. Very strange. But there are so many jobs that don’t specifically require a specific subject, only an indication that you managed okay at third or fourth level, and unless you know whole-heartedly at seventeen or eighteen what you want to do for the rest of your life, a general qualification is far better than being miserable for several years or feeling like you’re only doing it for Job X/Y/Z which may or may not emerge.

      (Oh, theory…)

  • Emerald

    Part of being a writer is standing out from the crowd. Offering a unique perspective that makes them want to hear your story, or see what you have to say. So doing the same degree program that millions of other people on the planet are doing, and expecting it to give you a considerable advantage, always struck me as a little futile.

    If you love reading and analysing books, that’s grand. But people pick English for the oddest of reasons. Some people just pick it because “I speak English good, therefore it’ll be easy”, but in fact, compared to the other arts subjects (at least in first year), English is by far the hardest in terms of workload.

    • clairehennessy

      It’s never quite the same degree program, though. I mean, the ‘BA in English’ looks the same, but from the point of view of developing your perspective, every college is different, every student is different – if colleges are training students properly they should be emerging with their own opinions and have spent a decent proportion of their time in college selecting their own material and topics, whether it’s through picking certain texts to write essays or a dissertation on, or taking certain options over others. But yeah – the idea that it’ll develop your creative writing skills is a bit mad (unless there are creative writing modules, but that’s a whole other story).

      That is an absurd reason to pick English! Ugh, some people… Where are you doing English, by the way? In Trinity you either do English on its own or English with one other subject, so there’s far less comparing (it tends to be the broader ‘arts v science!’ debate), but I do remember finding first year tricky with all the critical theory (the history department waited until third year before introducing us to such things), a very obvious jump from second level.

  • Eimear

    I definitely went the ‘because it’ll get me a good job’ route with journalism, only to discover I don’t really want to be a journalist. On the plus side, it did make my writing a lot cleaner and less waffle-y.

    Interesting blog post here:

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