In Defense of Writing Degrees

In about six weeks I'll get my BA in creative writing. When people ask what I study in school, I almost dread it. After I tell them, the common responses include: "Oh, wow. What do you do with that?" or "So you write stories and stuff? What kinds?" or "Oh. Very cool." And all responses are accompanied by a surprised look that shifts into mild interest/concern.

This might be a me-problem because I'm a water sign introvert, but I hate answering questions about my degree. Under no circumstances do I regret choosing creative writing, but it feels like the world wants me to. The truth is that I don't know what I am going to do with it, but I'm excited to figure it out - there's a million things I could explore. I've noticed that there are huge misconceptions about creative writers or writers in general - one of them being that we all want to be the next J.K. Rowling. While this may be true for some people, we typically have a wide variety of written interests, from lyrical to literary. But I know too well what it's like being on the receiving end of negative writing degree comments.

I have had to sit in the back of the classroom listening to a room of male computer coders and engineer majors explain away how writing and art degrees are "just less valuable" compared to science and other "practical" degrees. They made it sound like that was the end-all of how the world works. I raised my hand and watched as an entire room of arched eyebrows turned to hear what I had to say.

The "value" of a degree like mine is no less or greater than theirs. Fine art degrees often hold their value in the pursuer. Art is about the pursuit of feeling, of a message, statement, a state of being. The significance is in that journey. When we turn in final projects or complete assignments throughout the year, completing those usually requires more than time and knowledge, it requires us to breathe life into them in personal ways. We bring so much of ourselves into what we create. A poetry chapbook is not something we can read a textbook for, or study a manual.

The logic behind belittling writing and art degrees seems to be in-part due to the (ridiculous) idea that writing and art are simple and the way critique is so subjective. (The rest I suspect has to do with average paychecks of writers and some Westernized ideal about the significance of a nine-to-five). There are rules depending on the type of writing, but besides journalism and technical writing, generally few. I like to think of creative writing degrees (and other fine arts) as toeing the line between selfless and selfish.

On one hand, it can be difficult to be vulnerable in writing, but sometimes that sacrifice produces the best work - often, in my experience - and it feels like being honest does your audience justice. On the other hand, I, at least, usually don't write for other people. I don't write to make the world a better place in some grande scheme. I write because I love writing, and whether the world wants it or not, I will continue to write for as long as I want it. And somehow, pursuing this as my career one day feels like the most selfish thing I'll ever do in a world of environmentalists and marine biologists and politicians. Not that I don't also care about those things, but creative writing and other art degrees are about connecting with what makes us human, and art cannot exist without us. That pursuit is something that I think is a part of the human experience, that search for connection, with ourselves and the world. Writing is private and exhibitionary at the same time.

In a computer programming degree, the work is all done outside the human. Your feelings and life experiences all the time outside of your work hours are not necessary to get the job done. In creative writing, I feel like my entire life, full of experiences and interactions that have shaped me as a person and continue to, all of that can be brought into what I create.

Maybe the next time someone asks me "What are you going to do with a creative writing degree?" I'll send them a link to this article.

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