Eighteen months ago, I was tasked with creating an undergraduate creative writing program for the Ringling College of Art + Design, where I’ve been teaching for the past eight years. It made sense to have this new degree – from film to illustration and computer animation to graphic design, story is at the heart of all the school does.
This challenge forced me to (re)consider a crucial issue: What should a good creative writing program do?
After examining all the existing creative writing programs (both undergraduate and graduate), doing some swami-style self-reflection – plus Facebook-asking oodles of creative writing faculty and recently graduated students – here’s what I believe to be true.
It creates community.
Most writers intimately know that Three Dog Night approached profound wisdom when they sang: “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” Writing feels like a solitary sport. When you have a dozen or three dozen others next to you, all similarly focused, all caring about the same things you do, all working toward the same goals? It can create healthy competition, profound camaraderie, and lifelong friends. It can help you through the toughest writer’s block. And when you land your first writing paycheck? You’ve got a ready-made group to go celebrate.
It connects you with mentors.
Yeah, you won’t land James Patterson as a mentor this way, but honestly – do you really want James Patterson as your mentor? I’d rather have a terrific midlist author take real stock in my writing growth and development. Someone who intimately remembers the slings and arrows of outrageous all-night writing sessions. Someone who knows the path(s) I want to take. Someone who is trained to say the right thing at the right time in just the right way (at least most of the time). Trying to get a mentor in the real world without the teacher/student connection is about as hard as landing a six-figure position at Microsoft after sharing an elevator ride with Bill Gates.
It gives you structure.
I’ve been meaning to trim the backyard junipers for, well, maybe two years now. One day . . . maybe . . . I’ll get to it. Know this mentality? Writers do it with novels, plays, scripts, and more. Without firm deadlines and serious accountability, life somehow gets in the way, no? Once you’re paying for the class and you’ve got grades as the kicker, you’ll likely start summoning the energy to get ‘er done. (Now if only someone would offer to grade me on my shrubbery trimming ability . . .)
It cuts down the learning curve.
Community + mentors + structure = figuring out the craft of writing far sooner than you would on your own. I promise.
It gives you credentials that open doors.
Ever wanted to work for Random House? The Donald Maass Literary Agency? The New York Times? Without a creative writing BA, BFA, MA, MFA, or PhD after your name, you probably won’t get a second look because the sharp kid with one of those degrees from Vassar (who likely interned there last summer) already got the job. She’s maybe not a better writer than you, but in a world where we all look to assign blame when something goes wrong? An HR person is far less likely to lose his job if an academically credentialed person doesn’t work out than if he takes a flier on a writer who never got any type of college degree. It’s a hard truth, I realize, but it’s a reality nonetheless.
It teaches you to go deep.
No more Wikipedia-level surface stuff. Writers learn to research deeply. They think deeply. They write deeply. Ultimately, they learn to live deeply.
In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character told the Harvard snobs that “you wasted $150,000 on an education you could have got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.” If you’re the type of person who learns well on your own and you have enough gumption and drive to self-educate, God bless you because you’re special and unique and you might not need a creative writing degree. Maybe time + The Writer + YouTube + reading a ton + practice, practice, practice = a terrific writing career for you. If not, consider giving a creative writing degree a try.
Choosing the right creative writing program for you
There are over 550 college and university creative writing programs. How do you know which is the right one for you? Here are the three crucial things I tell every prospective creative writing student.
- Consider faculty. Don’t go to a specific place only because of the program’s reputation. That matters, but what matters just as much (perhaps more so) is the faculty. Do you admire their work? Would you be happy writing like one or more of them? I hope so, because you’re going to. It can’t be helped – you’ll absorb some of their style, their mannerisms, and their techniques. So pick a place with writers you totally dig.
- Consider location. If, in your heart of hearts, you’re a city mouse, you’re not going to relish living near the endless corn rows of the University of Iowa, which has a cow-to-person ratio I don’t dare admit to knowing. Go to an environment that suits you or you’ll be miserable.
- Consider outcomes. Do the recent graduates do well? Do they get writing/publishing jobs? Do they publish noteworthy things? Is there a prominent “Grads Done Good!” webpage that boasts of many writerly accomplishments that’d you have loved to have done yourself? If not, that’s a real warning sign (or, to be fair, a sign of a super-super-new program).
Ryan G. Van Cleave is a Florida-based writing teacher and author of 20 books, including most recently Memoir Writing for Dummies and The Weekend Book Proposal.
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