I am a writer.
Now, anyone can say that they’re a writer, but—since we lie so much of the time—can you really believe them? Where’s the proof? What’s the official designation? Is there a membership badge? Is it the mere act of publication for pay? And what kind of publications count? Newsletters? Literary journals? Blogs? Or does that designation come from something loftier? Do you have to attend retreats? Is there a minimum number of seminars required? Or does the right to call yourself a writer come only from a university degree?
That’s a much-debated question for many writers, especially those just starting out: Do you really need a degree? Well, if wondering has been keeping you up nights, then this is your lucky day, because I’ve done some preliminary informal research* and I’ve discovered that when surveyed, my respondents generally fell into one of four groups:
- Group 1: People with degrees who believe you need a degree
- Group 2: People without degrees who believe you don’t need a degree
- Group 3: People who say they’re in Group 2 but who are lying and really secretly want one (Remember, these are writers you’re dealing with, so you can never really be certain)
- Group 4: People formerly from Group 1 who have degrees but did not go on to productive careers as writers themselves and now believe they should have listened when people asked them, “Why do you need a degree to become a writer?”
Yeah, I felt that way, too—until I was accepted into the M.A. in Writing program at DePaul University. (I swear I only applied because I was bored. Really. Yeah, like Michael Crichton, only without the biological anthropology detour. I mean, if you search for successful writers without degrees, you’ll get some 28 million hits; search for successful writers with degrees and all you get is crickets chirping. Of course you don’t really need a degree.)
But when I started showing up for classes, a funny thing happened: I could practically feel my noggin expanding to hold a whole world of knowledge I had never known existed. I could actually feel my brain growing, and the results began to show in my writing. I started to wonder if maybe that diploma was more than just a piece of paper. And just like that, I found myself on my way to being a newly minted member of Group 1. (Try to keep up; these shifts happen quickly.)
So there I was, happily storing up knowledge, and then…
Undaunted, once we’d settled in, I applied to the University of Minnesota writing program to finish, assuming that since I was, in essence, a transfer student, I’d be practically a legacy admission, an assumption that lasted right up until Reality kicked my butt with its size 13 steel-toed boots.
That’s right. I was rejected.
And a second time.
Are you kidding me?
And then, unbelievably, a third time.
Ouch, indeed. Just like that, I was dumped unceremoniously into Group 3. (Okay, it wasn’t ‘just like that,’ it was a long, painful, and whiny three years .) Once the mourning ended and I remembered that you don’t really need a degree to be a successful writer, I decided I’d had enough of wallowing in Group 3 and if I was going to be a writer, well, then I’d just have to do everything I could to be a great writer without that fancy-schmancy degree. Group 2! My people! My people!
I wrote. I read. I studied. I took classes in writing, editing, proofreading, and graphic design. I joined writers’ groups. I networked. I volunteered my writing and editing skills for whomever would take me. Eventually, I built up a small pool of freelance clients and I poured all of my writing dreams into their projects. I published articles in magazines. I worked my way up to a job as associate editor of a national trade magazine. I self-published my first novel, Widow Woman ! Take that, stupid diploma! Who needs you, anyway? I thought I was cured.
Until we moved again.
Tempted by the thought of a new program that might see my genius for the true miracle it was, I took what I thought was a long shot and applied to Johns Hopkins University. (If you’re going to dream, dream big.) This time, Reality arrived not wearing steel-toed boots, but borne on fairy wings and carrying an acceptance letter and a basketful of kittens. (Ah, I lied. See? You’re catching on.)
But now, play along with my little shell game and see if you can guess which group I belong to now. (And if you figure it out, let me know, because I’m feeling a bit confused.)
I’ve already a “productive” writer: magazine articles, a novel, a blog, paying clients. I think I’ve earned the right to call myself a writer at this point (though there’s always room for more paying gigs, am I right?)
But if that’s really the case, why do I still need (or want, to be more accurate) a degree? Is it just those letters after my name? A silly, embossed piece of paper? That elusive sense of legitimacy? Is it the closure, the finishing of what I started? A very shallow yes, I think, to all of those. But I think—at least, I hope—there’s more to my decision than that.
Because here’s the thing: I know that I became a better writer through my earlier graduate work. I became a closer, more critical reader. I developed skills I didn’t know I would need and that I certainly hadn’t learned in my undergraduate Spanish and French major /minor. (No lie that; I taught in public high schools for nearly a decade, too.)
But I also know that I became a better writer working outside of a formal degree program. I became a better networker. I became a better marketer, a better finder and consumer of a vast world of amazing resources—all because I was forced to in the absence of a formal academic structure.
For me, today, the question of finishing this degree is no longer about either academic immersion or practical, real-world application; it’s about both. So now, if you’ve been keeping up, I guess you could argue that I’m about to become a member of Groups 1, 2, and 3 (though I confess: I’m fervently hoping I won’t end up a member of Group 4).
I no longer really have a question about myself anymore; after all, I’ve already registered for class. If you find my reasons are equal parts valid and shallow, then so be it. I’ve already admitted to being a liar, so I’m obviously okay with admitting my foibles, and we writers are not only liars, but also by our very nature a pretty narcissistic bunch. I mean, who really believes that their words are so important the whole world will want to read them?
Well, I do.
But then, I’ve already admitted I’m a liar.
What do you think? Legit, or bulls**t?
*By research, I mean I asked four or five of my writer friends. And my next-door-neighbor. And my best friend. They’re not writers, but love to take surveys. I also approached one half-drunk author at a conference who shouted expletives at me before I ran away from his table. Oh, and I wrote up a survey for Survey Monkey but I forgot to send it before deadline, so this all very official.
Hay & Grower magazines and she is a featured author at Buzzle.com. An active blogger and past finalist in The Loft Literary Center's Mentor Series Competition in Minneapolis, Julia currently lives in Maryland with her family and her writing partner, a crazy Weimaraner named Loki. You can find Julia and follow all her adventures at Justscribbling.com, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc. Widow Woman is her first novel.