Why I got a creative writing master’s degree when everyone says you shouldn’t
No, I wasn’t bamboozled into getting my postgraduate education in creative writing. I knew exactly what I was doing. I already had a bachelor’s degree in creative writing.
Wow! This guy got a creative writing undergraduate degree and doubled down on his mistake!
I actually write for a living and still enjoy writing. I pay my bills with my writing, and follow my dreams with my writing. And I couldn’t be where I am without my creative writing degrees (although there are many amazing writers who don’t have any formal training!)
I think it’s best to start my story from the beginning.
I wasn’t a natural at the important craft of writing
I learned to read, according to my parents, at around three or four years old, although I highly doubt them on that point.
However, most of my earliest memories involve having a book read to me or reading myself. We had flash cards of letters and sounds. My mom would play phonics cassette tapes in the car.
Reading was essential to my life. I consumed a ton of books, which made me better at many elements of writing, and also made me want to write to provide the same thrill for others.
I learned handwriting, print and cursive, as soon as I was coordinated enough to draw shapes. Technically, I could write things down by that point, but I wasn’t printing books.
I was also huge on storytelling. I would take action figures and play out a tale in which Batman nearly defeats Snake Eyes from G.I. Joe, only for Batman to be betrayed by Egon Spengler from Ghostbusters.
Storytelling is important for writers, and I was always creating my own stories.
But man, I didn’t understand spelling or grammar. At all. I also didn’t like reading my work a second time as a kid, so I left tons of errors.
To make matters drastically worse, I just improved my vocabulary, logic, and storytelling to such a degree that I vastly compensated for my faults. Nobody would really attack my writing because I had strengths that outweighed my weaknesses.
I was basically taking a mastery of what would have been public speaking and translating it into paper. This was all complicated by the type of education I got.
Homeschool let me thrive at my strengths, but I still needed formal education for my weaknesses later
As a kid, I was homeschooled for most of elementary and all of middle school. After fifth grade, I didn’t go back to public school until tenth grade.
To complicate things even further I was responsible for my own education in homeschool, so I had nobody raising a flag when I was weak at something like grammar.
And I passed state exams with flying colors, so nobody called me out. I wasn’t below average in terms of grammar, spelling, and errors, but I certainly wasn’t qualified to be a professional writer either (there’s an enormous gap between literacy and mastery.)
But it was a two-edged sword. If I hadn’t been homeschooled, I would probably not have solidified what I wanted to do. I got to read fiction and make up my own stories during the times that other kids would be walking the halls or riding the buses. Without homeschool, I would have had too many things drawing me away from reading and storytelling and logic and the other things I was good at.
When the SAT rolled around, I scored higher in math than I did in English.
My English teacher in senior year graded us on content and grammar separately. I made it my mission to spite her by scoring an A+ on content and an F on grammar for every assignment.
I went to a journalism camp for a week once. In that camp, like at school, I was encouraged to keep pursuing writing because I had strengths, but I was still ignoring the depth of my weakness. I was pretty sure I’d be cranking out bestselling novels by the age of 25. Then reality set in.
My creative writing degree crushed my soul, and that’s a good thing
In my freshman year, my English class published a magazine. When no one else wanted to work on the group assignment, I ended up contributing my own work and editing the whole thing (and I still sucked at editing). I enjoyed it, and switched my major from journalism to creative writing.
But man, workshop classes were harsh. This reality check was the first thing that I really needed a degree in writing for. Every few weeks, you would write something brand new and print a copy of it for every student. Then, everyone in the class would read it and come to class.
You would sit there, with 15 other students, and you couldn’t talk while they reviewed your work. You had to just listen while they ripped it apart, piece by piece, right in front of your face. Some students turned red. Others would break the rules and shout “You just don’t understand it!” at the other students. Several students cried, but the professor always had us carry on.
But after four years of it, I couldn’t really live without the criticism. To this day, I can’t write without sending it to at least a handful of other people so they can rip it apart. In fact, I rarely even turn red anymore.
And along the way, with enough pressure from harsh but caring professors, something clicked for me about parts of speech and spelling and editing. By the end of my program, I didn’t even recognize myself because I had changed so much as a writer.
I got a master’s degree because I’m a professional writer, not to become one
I think some people get their degrees because they hope that it will make them great at what they study. Unfortunately, you have to provide a huge amount of resources yourself before, during, and after your degree to get anything out of it.
After a few years writing professionally after college, I joined the Army. And although I trained for combat, I ended up in a creative writing position for several years. I always seek out those roles, and I excel at them, and my creative writing degree helps.
And then I got out of the Army, and I wanted to write professionally again. I took a huge chance and started freelance writing without any clients and no savings. I ended up getting the clients, but when my skills directly affected my pay, I realized that I needed more skills.
So I got my master’s degree in writing after I was already writing for a living. I polished a lot more of my grammar, spelling, and technical writing chops while exercising my creativity.
I managed to stick with my choices for higher education even while hearing a lot of hate for English degrees:
- “Well my English degree was worthless!”
- “Do you want to be a teacher?”
- “Can’t you get a different degree and write in your own time?”
- “Everyone can write.”
My tips when considering creative writing degrees
I could be jaded by all that friction along my journey, but I’d rather be helpful to those who are following a similar path.
Here’s what you should know about getting the most out of a creative writing degree:
- Reconsider getting a creative writing degree if you have literally no prior skills in any important areas. You will have an uphill battle to fight, and many of my peers regretted investing their time and money in creative writing if they end up failing professionally.
- Remember that writing is a skill that can apply broadly across many disciplines if you learn and practice it correctly. With the right mindset, it can help you as a professional no matter what comes your way.
- Don’t get a creative writing degree you can’t afford. Creative writing is a winner-takes-all industry with very uneven pay gaps, unlike steady jobs such as accounting, where pay is more predictable. Money woes will make you bitter about the degree when the fault was in your financial decisions.
- Avoid getting a creative writing degree if you already have everything you need. If you’re a perfect writer but you haven’t done great professionally, just give it time. Either people will realize that you’re great, or you’ll realize that you suck.
That’s all I can think of right now. I hope that what I’ve said here validates your own creative writing education or helps you make a decision for or against the same path as mine. Happy writing.