What It’s REALLY Like to Major (and Master) in Creative Writing

First of all, let me say that this was my own personal experience with a four-year-long B.A. in Creative Writing and subsequent two-year-long M.A. in Creative Writing. This is post is not reflective of everyone else’s experience in the same program or similar programs. Warning: This may sound like a ranty revenge article, but I’m not writing this because I’m bitter. I’m not all that bitter. Just a little bitter, like a splash of vinegar in salad dressing or something. Really, I’m writing this so that anyone who is considering a creative writing major can make an even more informed decision, and hopefully this will help them figure out if that path is the right one for them.

I started off with a Bachelor of Arts in English Language, Literature and Creative Writing, and after a semester, I decided to make it a double major with Communication, Media, and Film. I wanted to go into publishing. I held onto that aspiration for a very long time. It had been budding in me since high school.

But as far back as I can remember, I’ve made up stories and wanted to be a writer. Eventually, I got it into my head that if I always spent time working on other people’s writing, I would neglect my own, and I started to feel iffy about going into publishing.

There’s a lot of “advice” from my creative writing professors that I am going to challenge in this article, but I think one of the most practical suggestions they’ve ever given me and my peers was to get a job that doesn’t involve a lot of writing.

Not because you won’t be able to find a job doing so. Contrary to popular belief, English majors actually can find jobs after college. Some become technical writers, some go into marketing, some become freelance or ghost writers and editors. The problem is that if you spend your 9-5 being forced to write for someone else, you lose momentum and motivation when you get home. Even if you’re one of those people who think they couldn’t possibly get tired of writing, the fact is that your eyes will be strained from staring at a screen for most of your life and your wrists will develop carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of your incessant typing.

It’s not that you’ll never make any money from the writing you love to do, but you will need a day job, at least for a while. And it is okay to pick something that has nothing to do with writing, something that will make you crave a return to your writing routine at the end of the day or the end of the week.

I understand, though, if you’re really dedicated to your craft and you think that the best way to hone it is to major, and quite possibly get a master’s degree, in creative writing. But if you truly are dedicated to your writing, you don’t necessarily have to major in creative writing in order to improve it. In my program, people from outside of the department could take the creative writing classes if their writing was strong enough. Also, there are plenty of strong online resources out there and books about writing that can help you strengthen yours. It can be intimidating to wade through them all, but make no mistake about it: a creative writing major and even a creative writing master’s degree won’t cover all your bases.

In my particular undergraduate program, creative writing courses started during the second year. We needed to apply with a portfolio showcasing what we believed was our strongest work. Around sixty people would apply, but only twenty would get accepted. Then in the third year, everyone had to apply again, and more people would be eliminated, so we would end up with about sixteen people in class. And then for fourth year, everyone had to apply yet again, even more were eliminated, and we’d end up with twelve people in the class. By the time I got accepted into the master’s program, there were only six of us. It was kind of like academic, artsy-fartsy Survivor.

Everyone was judged anonymously by the committee of creative writing profs, based solely on the strength of their portfolios. This sounds ideal, but it’s actually where things got problematic — because “strength,” unfortunately, was a subjective term in this department. We were encouraged to have diverse portfolios, meaning we should try to write in more than one genre. Profs wanted to see both fiction and poetry from everyone, even if some people didn’t want to be poets. Even if some didn’t want to be fiction writers. Creative non-fiction was okay, as well. What wasn’t okay? Genre fiction.

That probably sounds confusing because I just said that we were encouraged to write in a wide range of genres. But not genres within fiction. Literary fiction is what the profs wanted to see. Even after all this time, I’m still not sure I understand what literary fiction is. But I can tell you what it is not. It is not fantasy. It is not sci-fi. It is not romance, chick lit, horror, mystery, or most historical fiction. In other words, aside from the few literary fiction novels and short story collections that win the Pulitzer Prize, it is not popular fiction.

I’ve heard the profs refer to genre or popular fiction in many ways: trash, crap, the kind of thing that you can read while watching TV. One of my profs even said that Nora Roberts wasn’t a real writer. She’s written hundreds of books and has very high ratings from her readers, so what makes her less of a writer than, say, that particular prof?

But this was all stuff that I heard — and silently chafed against — after I had gotten into the very first creative writing class. Because I myself prefer to write popular fiction. I love fantasy. I love contemporary. And I would’ve submitted that stuff in my portfolio if my college boyfriend, who was a year ahead of me in the program, hadn’t warned me that I had to play to the tastes of the professors. What they didn’t like to see: genre fiction, poetry in the same style as Shakespeare’s or Wordsworth’s, and poetry that was left-aligned on the page and had a capital letter at the beginning of each line. What they did like to see: experimental poetry (think e.e. cummings) — HEAVY emphasis on that — short literary fiction, and fragments of literary novels that were strong enough to stand on their own.

Since the professors ran the program, they could ask for whatever they wanted, I guess. But here’s my problem with their preferential methods: As professors of creative writing, a term that encompasses almost every genre, their job should be to help student develop whatever kind of creative writing they’re into. No genre is better or lesser than the others. There are some marvelously-written romance novels out there, while there are some so-called literary novels that are complete disasters. The focus of creative writing classes should be to improve writers’ sentence structures, plot holes, character development and dialogue issues, grammatical errors, telling rather than showing statements, and so on. The focus of creative writing classes should not be to create clones of the professors.

And the thing is, I wasn’t alone in wanting to write genre fiction. About half of the people in each class I went through were right there with me. The others, though — the ones who willingly wrote the types of pieces the professors liked — were quite obviously favored. But I guess that was to be expected. What I did not expect was the way the profs, and even fellow students, would sometimes embarrass the people who wrote genre fiction. On top of that, much of their feedback wasn’t helpful.

There was one person in one of my creative writing classes who wanted to write a paranormal romance featuring a broody, mysterious guy. Sure, it’s been done before, but it was what she wanted to write. Instead of helping her improve the story for what it was, the class on the whole tried to make her steer it in a completely different direction. They latched onto a quirk that her protagonist had, something that may have hinted at OCD (I speak as someone with a partial medical diagnosis of OCD). It was just a random detail that she had included, but the rest of the class seemed to think that was the most interesting detail of her story and encouraged her to expand on it. In the subsequent chapter she gave us to look at, the quirks were definitely more flushed out, but it got so far away from the actual point of the story that, to me, the whole situation just seemed like even more of a mess. The class told her what they liked, and she gave it to them, even though it ultimately did nothing to help her. They had their own reading preferences in mind rather than her best interests.

So, knowing that I probably wouldn’t get the type of feedback I needed for the writing I was truly passionate about, I spent years churning out pages that I didn’t care about all that much. I was a fake just to please other people, avoid embarrassment, and get good grades. Normally when you hear of someone “selling out,” it means that they’ve abandoned their style in for the sake of producing something with more mass market appeal. What I truly want to write already does have mass market appeal, but I abandoned that style, and I felt like I had sold out. I shamefully wrote in my preferred genres on the side, in secret. What a waste of time for me and everyone else in my boat, right?

It wasn’t until my master’s when I took a course on writing children’s literature that I dared to submit a couple things I wanted to or might have wanted to expand into novels someday. My long-time creative writing prof gave them the thumbs-up. And one day, she gave me one of the most encouraging compliments I’ve ever received: “I think you’ve got a lot of books in you. Maybe you won’t write a hundred, but I can definitely see you writing thirty or forty.” She did not give compliments out easily, so I knew she meant it. And it was realistic. She didn’t tell me “Yes! Aim for a hundred! You can do it!” Most writers won’t even complete thirty books in their lifetime, so that alone was huge for me to hear.

But I couldn’t help wondering if she would’ve said that to me if, throughout my years in those previous creative writing courses, I had written the stuff I truly wanted to write. Was she encouraging me based on my contributions to the the children’s lit classes, which were closer to my heart? Or was she judging the entire body of my work that she knew of and therefore missing a large part of the picture? I’m afraid to know what she would’ve said about the things I wrote on the side. I have a feeling it would’ve been mean. I wonder if she would’ve said I had any books in me.

Yet when these creative writing professors (and many students) are asked why they hate genre fiction, they say, “We don’t. It’s fine. It’s just that you don’t need creative writing classes to write that kind of thing.” It seemed like a polite way to say that writing for genre fiction doesn’t need to be good; you don’t need to learn anything; those publishers don’t care about quality writing. I thoroughly disagree. I think that the quality of the writing matters across genres. I think characters and plots need to be developed whether you’re writing a mystery novel or a literary novel. People who read genre fiction aren’t stupid. They can recognize poor writing, and to many of them, it matters a lot.

Not every creative writing program out there will have this snobbery, but I have a bad feeling that most of them do.

So here is my advice for anyone looking into a creative writing program for university:

1. Always do your research thoroughly. Look into the profs’ interests, dare to reach out to the department secretary so they can put you in touch with current students who would be willing to answer your questions, check out the graduates of the program and see if there is anyone you know of whose style you admire. If the professors (or at least some of them) are open to working with your preferred genre and he students don’t feel constrained by arbitrary rules, chances are it’s a decent program. Bonus points if the program has alumni you’re a fan of.
2. There are specific creative writing programs out there in universities for people who want to write genre fiction, if that is your main interest. Look into those.
3. If you’re considering post-grad education, an M.A. (Master of Arts) is not necessarily the way to go. An M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts) might be a better option for you. Professors will warn against this one because getting an M.F.A. means you can’t go on to pursue a Ph.D., but if you don’t plan to get a Ph.D., that’s not a problem. M.F.A. programs are usually shorter (a year as opposed to two) and focus more on creative writing than on essay writing.
4. Consider pursuing your creative writing education independently. There is absolutely no shame in being self-taught. You can also find critique partners and writing groups of people who have the same writing interests as you and who will be able to give you solid feedback on your work because they’ll have a stronger knowledge of the genre than a literary creative writing professor. You have to do the same for them, though.

That’s my spiel. Long-winded, but it needed to be said. If you truly care about your writing, remember to put it first. Don’t invest in a program that won’t invest in you. Happy searching! And while you’re here, tell me, what’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever heard?

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