Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

If one can argue against traditional non-academic literary schools, then one can reason against a purely academic model (Final)

Share |

Part 3: Writing as academic practice

Did I mention these are strictly my opinions?

First, I am not saying that English, or English Literature, or Creative Writing degrees are not legitimate degrees. (With Creative Writing majors who do not plan to become editors, or publishers, or educators you may want to get a double major in something like Marketing and start interning your first year.) These are all great degrees. Simply go to any job website and look at all the jobs that are available to people with English degrees. That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying if your goal is to be a creative writer, study something else.

Why pay to study something that you can learn for free? The most important thing a writer does is not write, or go on long walks (I love long walks by the way – like 5k minimum when I go for a walk), but to read. Stuck for things to read? Do what I used to do – go to the university bookstore, scan what books the English Lit classes are reading – tadah! Go to the library, or borrow said books from friends. That's what I did. All the literature without the warped opinions of the lecturer. So much of creative writing is tied to your ability to observe others. Take a major that leads to a job, but minor in psychology, philosophy, history, etc.

At this stage (post secondary), being part of a writers' group for a couple years may be more of a help than a mandatory course that forces you to write in a particular way to get a passing grade (But be weary that you are not being encouraged to conform to a way of thinking). Nothing creates mediocre writers quicker than professors forcing kids to conform to get a degree. If you still want to become a writer, don't waste your time in a Masters program. You should be submitting your work to literary zines, quarterlies, and online magazines. Get rejected. Ask for a rationality if the opportunity is there. Go to poetry/story-telling open mics. Read your work for an audience. Get more feedback. Throw away what you don't need and repeat the process until rejection becomes acceptance. Then submit a full manuscript -- with a structure, and voice to as many publishers as you possibly can. Hope that it's good enough for them to bother sending you a rejection letter.

-- If you are a writer of color don't forget to multiply the process by 2.

Masters degrees – for the record, are an awesome opportunity for editors, educators, and publishers. I just believe real life is a more important teacher than any academic professor could ever be for a writer. Big distinction. Enough with the Adam Smith philosophy seeping into post-graduate education. Masters degrees should at least lead to the potential promise of employment.

Can you imagine? Paying thousands of dollars to get a book deal that gives you a $500 advance and maybe a $2000 grant? That's what a first time writer can expect from a small press. Amazing, I know. To be clear, there are things a pure writer can get from a Masters program – but it should not be the be all and end all it is becoming. The current trend is devaluing the degree.

Creative writing is not a team sport. Would being in a writers' group that doesn't cycle new writers through for more than 2 years be a bad thing? Yes. It is likely that members will become complacent and dependent on fellow members' opinions, rather than confident in their own. The group could have long de-evolved into a social gathering, but the likelihood is a combination of the two. Any dependency of others during the writing process, beyond simple technical support distorts the authenticity of one's work.

Does this mean, that say, a university grad (with a lit or creative writing degree), who is dependent on a writers' group (or multiple) to create lacks creativity? Is a sheep? That they steal ideas, or uncredited labor from others? No – but it heightens the chance. It heightens the chance that they are better suited for one of the many wonderful jobs that having a degree in their discipline affords them. A Masters' Degree? If you feel you need it go ahead, if not – that's an expensive wall decoration. Go into your MA, or MFA with goals beyond a single manuscript. Graduate with more skills than the ability to write a book with a professor breathing down your neck.

Being a creative writer is tall grass. It's not a well groomed path. Whatever romantic ideals you have of being a writer should be thrown away. This is a tough arduous journey. It's a place where feel, and rhythm often trump academic theory. A journey where scary creatures can scurry around your legs. If you understand that, and still wish to write, you do so because you are compelled to. Maybe it's the look of a child, grand-child, or a personal journey. Academic papers, accolades and social coolness be damned. The goal is to be great. Maybe a small shot at greatness, but to you, it's your small shot at greatness. Wanda Coleman once extolled the advice that a pimp told her, “Are you a writer? If you are a writer, write.”

I advise you to do the same.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Dane Swan

Dane Swan is a Bermuda-raised, Toronto-based internationally published poet, writer and musician. His first collection, Bending the Continuum was launched by Guernica Editions in the Spring of 2011.

Go to Dane Swan’s Author Page