Do Writers Need a Degree? (Did They Ever?) (Does Anybody?)

In the pedantic fashion of those with degrees, I will start off with qualifications of the topic…it depends…on what the writer’s writing, what the writer intends to do with what the writer is writing, what outside sources the writer might need to explore to cover the chosen  subject…and which degree we’re talking about.   The value of any degree lies not just in whether you can find a job with it, but in what knowledge base and skills it can make available, the expertise of those who supervise the program,  and the network the writer can later access for pointers to more knowledge and skills and people who may be helpful.  There have been times in SF, for instance, when a writer possessing a degree in a science valued by a particular editor had much less trouble getting a first book accepted…and those editors would have been far less impressed by an MFA from Iowa’s famous creative writing program.   Writers of military fiction benefit both directly (with the knowledge obtained) and indirectly (with editorial trust in their experience) if they have served in the military, and the longer the service the better.    A story (speaking of fiction writers) still has to be a good story, but the relevant degree gives an editor some assurance that the content is more likely to be accurate.

Some years ago, on a panel at a convention on research for writers, I commented that any degree from a good university usually gave a graduate some experience in picking out good sources from bad ones…that formal study could and often did include learning how to do the research efficiently and well.  This irritated another writer on the panel who thought I was dissing their work–this writer had no degree, and had written excellent books on a difficult period in one Euro nation’s history.  I wasn’t dissing their work–they were brilliant books–but I remembered hearing this writer talk about the struggles of finding out the real facts until she had spent considerable unproductive time on it, while working on the first book.   If you are working with primary material (talking to the people who did the thing you’re writing about, with access to their contemporary notes, photos, etc.) then the ability to discern  which of your sources has the most accurate memory and the will to share it is something universities don’t teach.  But if you’re using written sources, then training in hunting down and recognizing the best sources can save you time and give a better foundation for the fiction.

As we all know, you can’t go online and accept the first thing you read about a topic as true, reliable, worthwhile.   I hang out in a lot of horse-related blogs, vlogs, and e-groups of various kinds.   Five horse people…at least six opinions about conformation, equitation, grooming tools, training methods, how to braid a mane, horse breeds, horse colors…and so on.  You can find beautifully (expensively) designed websites promoting expensive (and bad) tools.  Advertising $50,000 horses I wouldn’t have if you gave them to me.   And that’s only horses.

Personal experience is the best research, as long as you don’t overgeneralize (hard not to sometimes.)   If you’ve trained dogs to a high standard in Agility, for instance, especially if you’ve worked with a variety of breeds, then you don’t need to do research to write about a fictional dog trainer and dogs of a breed you’ve trained for that competition…you have that experience in hand.  If you’ve done construction work, spent six months  on a road crew handling the heavy equipment…you don’t need a degree in it; experience is the only way to know the peculiarities of the machines you used.  You know what it feels like to reach for *that* lever, change the pressure of your foot *there,* and so on.   If you’ve done basic home cooking for years, you know the smells, textures, tastes of your ingredients both raw and being cooked.  Your hands automatically grip an onion and a ripe tomato with different pressure.  You don’t need a degree to become a very good cook…though it will be a faster process if you’re being taught.

I am glad for my university experiences, all three of them.  I’m glad I had times of learning intensely, almost overwhelmed by the flood of new knowledge, as in my years at Rice University.   I am glad I had times of formal learning that were less intense….and glad I had times where my learning was entirely self-directed.  And the real motivation for that was not just that I was born curious and able to learn, but a specific meeting with a specific person.   I went back to Houston on leave, and visited my favorite professor, Dr. K.F. Drew, then chair of the history department.  As we chatted, she told me that one thing about meeting past pupils sorrowed her…that some of them, when she visited their home, or talked to them, had stopped learning.  They had no books more recent than their old textbooks; they were undoubtedly learning something, how to work for this corporation maybe, but it was something so much easier she felt their brains were atrophying.  And I who admired her so much, determined not to be like that–to keep learning.  But how, if I couldn’t take college classes all the time?

I came up with a plan for myself, a plan I stuck to for decades and actually quit on only when my writing schedule got so tight that I was unable to get enough sleep.  Over the years, it changed how I thought about learning.  By some fortunate guess, I decided to  schedule it like college–two semesters, and the summer either off or a deep dive for summer school, about 8 weeks.  I decided I would go into something new of the academic type and some new skill or practical knowledge, and stick with it for two semesters, trying for a level of knowledge equal to a Rice course.  Then switch to another new “subject” unless I’d fallen in love with it, in which case I could take another “course” of it.   There is a vast amount of stuff to learn…stuff I was already curious about and stuff I hadn’t found yet.   Over the years I sometimes went to night school, when I wasn’t actually pursuing a degree.  Studied another foreign language (technical German–it didn’t stick either),  learned to use field guides to study local botany (Virginia is not like south Texas!!), learned to backpack, camp in snow, make jams and jellies from wild fruits, learned to garden for food, with R- built a boat, continued to study history, anthropology, read real science journals weekly.  If I was in a degree program, that counted as my academic work, but the need to pick up new practical, physical skills was met by sewing, needlepoint, knitting, gardening, raising chickens for eggs, identifying all the local plants and as many birds as I could see everywhere, revisiting my geology classes and applying those to local geology wherever I was….then learning to ride “English” and jump, learning about learning theory, and all the time building the connections between things that I’d begun earlier.  In less than ten years, it became natural to look for new things to learn about, to reach out, as children do, to anything that caught my interest….because learning is fun, not just useful, but also useful, and the doors and windows swing open…and the writer-mind is fed.  Would I have done that without Drew’s comments?  I don’t know…probably not in as structured a way as I set up for myself.   But I’m sure glad I did.

And now the next front is on us–the thunder and rain and I will shut this down.

2 thoughts on “Do Writers Need a Degree? (Did They Ever?) (Does Anybody?)

  1. Again, thank you, I keep saying that to you. You challenge me frequently to expand my horizons. I see that North Texas got a mess of a storm last night, I hope you and all your boys, human and equine, are okay today.

  2. We’re fine, Leslie. The worst of it was almost 200 miles away. We got the end of that long curved tail…a bit of thunder, a bit of wind, some more (and welcome!) rain, followed by a gorgeous day of clear blue sky, almost no wind, and brilliant sunlight through the turning leaves.

    And I rode Ragtime all the way up to Fox Pavilion (the first rain barn we built to provide water for wildlife. The first time in the 20 years we’ve owned the 80 acres I’ve had a horse I could ride on it. I rode my first horse on it with permission of the farmer who leased it then, but didn’t have another horse I could ride out there for years. Pictures in another post.

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