“You don’t need a degree to be a writer.” It’s something most aspiring writers have heard at some point. And I completely agree. To be a writer, you need do nothing more than write. And, yet, I decided to get a master’s degree in writing. Why?
I love school. If someone wanted to pay me to go to school for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t even hesitate. So I’d always kind of planned on going to grad school. Getting a post-graduate degree is just something that seemed like a part of who I was, honestly. And when I graduated from college, it didn’t happen right away. And that’s mostly because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I toyed with business school and law school and museum studies. But when I spent a big chunk of the tax return from my first grown-up job on books, I realized that – DUH – books are the thing I loved. I’m pretty sure I applied for grad school less than a month later.
There seems to be a little bit of controversy about writers getting their MAs or MFAs lately. And, for the most part, I lean more toward the camp that doesn’t really like the books these writers produce. (Irony!) They tend to be overwritten to the point of obnoxious. Several times, when trying to read these highly-acclaimed novels, the prose has actually made me physically itch. Like my body’s rejecting the words in that specific combination. As someone who is nearly done with my MA in English and Creative Writing, I totally get this impulse. When you’re surrounded by writers, the urge to be pretentious is strong. There’s pressure to not only come up with original stories and characters, but to put words together in new, novel ways. You spend so much time studying writing that when it’s your turn to write, you can’t help but show off. And, often, the result is a writing style that overshadows the story itself. It doesn’t tell the story, it is the story.
Once I noticed this problem, it was like a light went off in my brain. “Yes! That’s why I hated that book!” And then another thought: “Am I becoming one of them?” Because, ultimately, I’m in the exact same spot. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down to write, and produced absolutely nothing, simply because I couldn’t think of anything that was the least bit profound. More often than not, I dismiss my own ideas as ridiculous, juvenile, or just plain stupid.
But here’s the thing: I did all this before grad school. And, bizarrely, grad school seems to have had the opposite effect on me. For the first time in my life, I’m okay (almost) with writing stupid shit. I FINISHED A SHORT STORY last month. And I didn’t hate it. Which is a huge accomplishment for me. And you know what? It’s not an amazing, ground-breaking short story. It’s simple and unassuming. I didn’t use the thesaurus or weave in any over-the-top metaphors. It kind of just is. And I like it like that.
An unexpected upside of grad school is that, unless I want to fail, I’m not really allowed to throw anything away. There simply isn’t time to write fifteen different beginnings until I find one I like. When a short story is due in a week, you write that short story, edit it as best you can, and turn it in. There isn’t room for anything else. So one of the biggest things I’ve learned is to be happy with what I’m able to produce. I’m probably not going to be Ray Bradbury or J. K. Rowling. My writing doesn’t have to be incredible right now. I don’t need a Pulitzer or even to get published (though, yes, those things would be amazing). I just need to write, and work on making my writing better.
I am currently working on my master’s thesis – a.k.a. an actual, full-length novel – and it’s making me crazy. I go from “this is the worst thing ever” to “maybe it’s not so bad” in the time it takes to unlock my iPhone. But the knowledge that I have no choice but to finish it (unless I want to basically lose thousands of dollars and spend the next thirty years paying off student loans for a degree I did not get) takes some of the pressure off.
Yes, sometimes grad school does make me want to give up writing. Just last week I read a classmate’s work for peer review, and the first thing I thought was how much better her writing was than mine. I don’t think doubts like that will ever go away. I will never read a Neil Gaiman book, and not think, “my writing will never be this amazing.” But, now, that makes me feel a little less insecure and crazy, and more hopeful and inspired. I might not ever write that well, but there is still something in me that needs to write and that’s all I need to know.