2014/12/01

We Don't Need No Education


I've come across a number of articles by professional authors that deal in part with how much, if any, formal education is required to write professionally. (Specifically, should aspiring authors take creative writing classes, pursue English degrees, attend writers' workshops, etc.?)

The consensus seems to be: "Get educated enough to know proper grammar; then ditch academia and learn the rest by writing."

This advice contradicts the message touted by the host of elders, media figures, and educators charged with guiding me during my formative years. I've always believed that their efforts were well-meant. I've since learned that they were wrong and my more experienced colleagues are right.

Like most writers, I displayed a love of reading from a young age. I produced my first crude short stories in grade school. By the time I started high school, the idea had dawned on me that I might pursue writing as a career.

My enthusiasm began to fade as I slogged through the advanced English curriculum. The creative writing class I elected to take smothered the feeble remnants of my aspirations.

I bet this sounds familiar: being forced to read dreary novels like The Scarlet Letter and The Catcher in the Rye by teachers who worship "literary" fiction and scoff at speculative fiction. That kind of environment was pretty disheartening to a kid who was then devouring the original series of Dune novels. The unstated yet clear message was that sci-fi and fantasy were for childish philistines.

Though I tried to like the literature my creative writing teacher foisted on me, it never did take. So I eventually gave up on the assigned reading, regurgitated the requisite number of interpretive short stories, and coasted by with a B minus, certain that writing was the last thing I wanted to do for a living.

By popular demand, the teacher did say we could write one spec fic story at the end of the semester, but he got behind schedule and rescinded the promise. It's a shame too, because one guy in my class was really good. He'd led the revolt against the interpretive fiction monopoly, and he kept working fantastic and sci-fi elements into his stories through the cunning and brilliant use of surrealism, schizophrenic narrators, etc. Before the class ended, he broke down and submitted a full-on high fantasy short.

I should've followed my classmate's example. Instead I muddled along under the false belief that speculative fiction is somehow less worthy than "real literature". But despite my teachers' best efforts, it turns out I'm a writer. Sometimes I wished I weren't, but I finally accepted that there's nothing I can do about it. I also accepted that I write science fiction and fantasy; not nihilistic "realist" claptrap about vapid twits coming to terms with their disillusionment.

How much education does a writer need? I learned 99% of the grammar and spelling that I still use by eighth grade. If not for high school English and creative writing, I'd probably be ten years further along in my writing career than I am now.

Once again, Pink Floyd shows us the way.

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