The Top Ten Reasons Why College Writing Programs Will Annihilate Any Hopes You Had of Ever Being A Writer
By Hayden Chance
So you want to be a writer? You should be. Never have there been more opportunities for someone who wants to write to create fiction, publish it and sell it to an audience than in this current age of Amazon and eBooks. But if you're thinking that you haven’t succeeded so far because you need to enter a college writing program or get an MFA in fiction writing, maybe you should think again. There’s nothing those programs will teach you that you can’t learn from just doing it. A writer is one who writes. The more you write, the more you learn. Period.
With over a decade of experience attending writing programs, then almost another decade teaching them, I’ve seen the ugly side of college writing departments and the fact is: they’re not really there to help you succeed as a writer. They’re there to take your tuition check. They get paid whether you succeed as a writer or not. And very few of them have any real-world experience that will be of any help to you or your writing career.
The best experience you can get is to get your work out in front of people who read. Readers are the ones who determine which stories will be remembered and which ones will be forgotten. Having a network of friends who read and who are honest with you about your work is far more valuable to you than any professor will ever be. Your friends want to see you succeed and be happy. A professor really only wants you to acknowledge his or her supreme authority.
These are the secrets no one will tell you.
Number ten: Most college writing classes are more like group therapy sessions than dynamic environments for producing engaging and provocative work. Talking about your feelings is great. Sometimes it’s even necessary, but that’s what good friends and families are for. Honestly, is it really in the best interest of your writing career to take out thousands of dollars in student loans to sit in a circle and talk about other people’s relationship issues? Some people who really don’t understand the difference between fiction and no-fiction like to write thinly veiled pieces about their current life difficulties and then ‘workshop’ them so that they can justify their life dysfunction. They also tend to end up being the ones whose “stories” get the most attention in class. Don’t believe me? The first time you watch someone run out of the classroom crying because someone says they feel the protagonist in their first person narrative is not someone the audience can like or identify with will change your mind.
Number nine: College writing programs discourage the pace you need to keep to succeed as a writer. The more actual books you sell, the greater your chances of being able make a living writing. You have a better chance selling more books if you have more books out there for people to buy. That means, simply, you have to write a lot of books to sell a lot of books. Producing two finished short stories or chapters in a fifteen week period is way too slow a pace to keep competitive in today’s fiction market. You need to write a lot of solid, engaging work in short periods of time to build a reading audience that can support your career. You cannot do that if you take four, five or even fifteen years to “workshop” a book, which most college writing programs happily encourage you to do.
Number eight: College writing programs encourage working on a story long after its vitality is gone. Ever catch fireflies in a jar when you were a kid? Well, writing is like that. There is a limited time in which you can catch the spark before the dawn comes and all the glitter is gone. If you don’t complete a book or story when it’s hot inside you, you will lose it. Spending years on a book or story does a disservice to your creative impulse and drains it of all its freshness and vigor. Strike while the iron is hot is an apt cliché here. A story that has gone cold because you’ve changed from who you were when you had your original impulse will lack integrity and seem disjointed to your reader.
Number seven: There’s more emphasis on ethnicity, gender and political correctness than on producing solid and engaging stories. Sometimes the best stories and most engaging characters are the ones who break all of the social taboos and norms. I’m not talking about perversions and kinky sex stories, which college writing programs seem to be adept at producing. (I once had to sit through a featured writer’s reading at a well-known Chicago arts college where a young man stood before a room full of people and read his excruciatingly graphic piece about a guy tying down and having sex with a deer. There was no plot. No story outside of the actual sex act. He was honored by the department as a progenitor of excellent writing.) No, I’m talking about the characters who aren’t afraid to be bad and break all social norms. Those characters are usually the ones audiences love the most and, coincidentally, the ones who most easily offend college writing professors. I have no problem with truly multi-cultural characters. I don’t care if a character is white, black, gay, straight, woman or man, Japanese, Chinese or Māori so long as they aren’t stereotypes and do something. Stories that try to be “edgy” by rambling on about gender, sexuality or ethnicity in lieu of a plot are insulting to a readers' intelligence.
Number six: Writing programs discourage creativity with elitism. There are only certain types of stories that college writing programs recognize as quality: those in the Literary Fiction genre. The other stuff, you know, the stuff people actually want to read, is most often looked down upon in college writing programs as marginal or unsophisticated. Openly asserting that you can only appreciate stories that fit into a narrow, academic pigeonhole is really a pretty superficial way of approaching writing and shows a lack of sophistication in the reader, not the writer.
Number five: Most writing professors have never actually finished, published or sold a book and yet they get paid to teach you how to do it. Those few who have actually published have usually done so through their college writing department or university presses and have no idea how a writer actually goes about building an audience and selling his or her work. It makes you wonder how they established themselves in the position of guru to begin with, doesn’t it?
Number four: College writing programs encourage writers’ block. Where your mind goes, your energy flows. Not only do they always talk about writers’ block in college writing programs, which gets you to focus on being blocked rather than on producing work, but very few, if any of them, have any effective methods of conquering the block they install by constantly talking about it. Writers need solid processes to enable creativity. Writing in a journal, which is the answer most college writing professors will give people about countering writers’ block, is not a solid process. It’s a way to start a career as a diarist and diffuse an otherwise powerful story impulse that could grow into a novel if cultivated in the right process.
Number three: Writing programs encourage rewriting for the sake of rewriting. There’s a dirty little secret that no one in the writing world wants to let anyone else know. I’m going blow the lid off it right now. You can actually write great work in a first draft. I cannot count the number of student first drafts I read when I was teaching that were perfect just the way they were and only got worse the more they were fiddled with. Most of the scenes I’ve written that have totally blown people away were either not rewritten or only slightly rewritten. College writing programs constantly encourage you to second guess your work and rewrite it endlessly until what started as vibrant, passionate and engaging is self-absorbed and flat. Just because you can rewrite something, doesn’t always mean you should.
Number two: If a writing professor doesn’t have anything constructive to say about your work, he will say something unproductive so that he doesn’t lose his position of authority. There is nothing more detrimental to one’s position as writing teacher than a student whose work is so strong it needs no critique. Often it happens that a young student proves to have more life experience and talent than his teacher. When that happens, the teacher will invent all sorts of BS to make it look like the student needs to change something that should be left the fuck alone. On those occasions many students in the class will join the teacher in trying to make that student feel inadequate when he or she isn’t. The smart students will approach that young writer on the side and say something like: “Don’t listen to them. It’s great as it is. Just publish it!” Unfortunately, this can set up cognitive dissonance in the young writer’s mind that can do great damage to his or her psyche. That damage never would have been there had he or she just avoided the whole college-writing program trap to begin with.
Number one: Writing programs will make you doubt your own talents and abilities. I have a friend who was actually told by his white, male writing professor that he could not write stories about magic or magical realism because he wasn’t a black or South American woman. My friend took the man’s words to heart for years before he finally realized such advice was complete and utter bullshit. His use of magic in his fiction not only became the signature of his writing, but became the thing his readers relished about his work. Which means his professor discouraged his true style because of his narrow-mindedness and limited vision! Quite often a professor who has no eye for talent in others discourages the very thing that could make a writer great. That is the number one reason to avoid such programs. Why risk letting someone crush your dreams because they lack vision? It’s just not worth it.