Image Credit: S_L / Shutterstock.com
So, you’ve armed yourself with a copy of your favorite manuscript of Kafka or Salinger or Hemingway and shipped off to college. Now you just have to choose a major to dedicate the rest of your life to. (What a lucky seventeen-year-old you are!) Well, given your love for reading and (you assume) writing fiction, you decide on Creative Writing. You tell yourself it will be easy, relatively fun, and something you’ll actually enjoy doing. Well, before you go nuts, Kerouac, take a look at our list of 5 things you should know about being a Creative Writing major.
5 Everyone has bad shit to say about your baby
Perhaps, worst of all, is that you’re not a perfect writer. Oh sure, you love your babies, but it’s mostly because you raised them. Their flaws are surely endearing to you, because you’ve clutched them to your heart for so long. How rude for the June Shannons in the class to call out your babies chipped tooth… right?!? Well, I’d hate to say it, Virgil, but this is probably the most important thing you can learn if you plan on being an actual writer: Rejection. With a capital R. You’ll get better, and people may grow to love your babies for all their scars and moles; in the mean time, weigh their advice and see if you can incorporate it into your next draft.
4 The clichés will make you jump like a cat on a hot tin roof!
Yes, in addition to mechanically bad writing, you will have to tackle a number of stories which are flawed in more essential ways: namely story, character, and diction. Six out of ten stories will end in suicide, because people still think that’s a unique way to sum up a character’s feelings on an arbitrary matter. You’ll also be confronted by corrupt cops, seductresses, and sexless scientists galore. Then there are the actual verbal clichés: “white as snow,” “innocent maidens,” “fretful sleeps.” You will surely encounter these and many more impotent or worn out moments if you insist on being a Creative Writing major.
3 You will spend most of your time correcting people’s spelling and punctuation
It’s amazing to me that people will submit a story which has not been proofread to a room full of writers and think it’s acceptable. Much more so because stories are almost universally composed on computers, and computers have spell check. Unfortunately, spell check doesn’t really know where to put a comma to simulate human breath. A librarian once told me that computers are very fast, but dumb as bricks. How unfortunate, then, when the person operating that computer also has an intellect which mimics building materials. Here’s the deal: if you really want to be a writer, you have to really write. Part of that is presenting good enough drafts that people can focus on your story and not how many times you neglected to capitalize your main character’s name.
2 You’re going to read a lot about dragons
Yeah, it would be a better world if everyone liked Faulkner and Joyce as much as you do. Or even Hemingway and Carver. Hell, even J.R.R. Tolkien. (At this point, I want to state that I have no problems with Tolkien as a writer; he just operates in a genre that doesn’t interest me.) For whatever reason, three to six people in every creative writing class take their cues from the most hackneyed, formulaic writers in the fantasy realm. They’re ideas are always half-baked and rely on clichés, if not outright stereotypes about gender. All the women in these stories are damsels in distress; all the men, wistful loners. And the dragons are still dragons.
1 You have to read everyone else’s crappy story
Especially if you’re the type who thinks that your stories are “your babies,” this can be particularly frustrating. Imagine if you had beautiful, talented, well-behaved children that you were extremely proud to call your own playing at a playground; then twenty other people showed up with their Honey Boo Boo children and compared them to yours. Oh, wait, America already does that. (Except for the valuing well-behaved, presentable children part.) Just buy a red pen and take out your frustrations in the margins of their stories if you want to keep going. Just don’t say out loud what you actually think of their ugly babies.
Hey, if you made it all the way down here, you may actually be literate enough to make it through the rigors of a Creative Writing degree! The main thing is to remain optimistic and seek out the other good writers in the class — then you can make fun of the bad ones over coffee. More importantly, don’t let the challenge of a prohibitive job market dog you. There are jobs and opportunities out there, and it is competitive. But if you can write in the way that Rilke talked about, you should have no problem finding a place to apply your skills.