Should I Major in English?

Quoth at least five students from every semester I taught: I want to be a writer. Should I major in English?

(Or, the heartbreaking variant, “I switched my major to English because of you!”)

Despite what generations of angry blue-collar fathers have told their first-generation college children, a degree in English isn’t necessarily a vow of poverty. I’m doing okay with mine (though I supplement it with skills in programming and design), and I know plenty of people with STEM degrees who are struggling to find work because physics is even less relevant than literature for most businesses.

The days of a one-to-one correspondence between a degree and a job (with a few exceptions like medicine, law, and accounting) are long gone, if they ever existed. Now your main hope is to convince a potential employer that you chose your degree intentionally to train yourself for a grand, specific, and most importantly profitable purpose.

“Yes, I selected my major in English because I’ve dreamed all my life about writing mortgage software documentation, and my ability to parse The Faerie Queene serves only the purpose of better understanding Truth-in-Lending statements.”

(I think English majors are better at that because they’ve read and written a lot more bullshit. STEM people are all hung up on the truth.)

But 99% of the students who asked me this question didn’t care if the degree would make them attractive to employers. They wanted to know if it would make them better writers.

And the answer is it probably won’t.

What will make you a better writer:

  • Writing a lot, particularly on demand without waiting for inspiration or even something to say.
  • Receiving feedback from competent people.
  • Deliberately analyzing your own writing weaknesses and correcting them with practice.
  • Reading the kind of books or stories you want to write. Not, as in my case, 17th century Restoration drama, which I somehow took two courses in at UF.
  • Demystifying writing as something that is made by deliberate action, something that can be practiced and hacked, not granted by the gods or solely the result of “talent.”

Whatever you study (either formally or not) needs to put you in the way of writing…but not just any writing.

You have to be careful with studying English because often, you’re learning about literature instead of writing, studying the circumstances in which it was made or the socioeconomic conditions it represents or the psychological issues it shows or the vagaries of accidental meaning it performs.

You can’t, alas, take apart a story and learn to write it by analyzing its conditions of creation any more than you can reverse-engineer a Porsche by studying Weimar Germany.

Even if your literature degree requires tons and tons of writing as many do, the type of writing is very different than what people ordinarily want to read. A well-written academic paper (probably 10%) is structured more like a legal argument, providing evidence and drawing conclusions from the text instead of using the text to prove some pet theory of culture.

If you like to approach literature with a scientific curiosity and open-mindedness without an ax to grind, then the academy definitely needs you.

It’s possible, of course, to major in creative writing. That will put you in the way of writing things that are closer to an audience, but even then, many programs and professors make writing into something precious and dramatic and important, which is the last thing you need.

What you need, more likely, is a cigar-chomping editor who thinks that all words can be summoned and rewritten nearly on demand. You’re more likely to meet that kind of person in a journalism or communications program.

You have to make writing something that isn’t mysterious and strange to you. It has to lose a little of its magic so you can imbue it with your own. That’s the tightrope you’ll walk, taking it seriously but not too seriously, loving your words but not too much.

Many of the English majors in my classes were too paralyzed by creating LITERATURE to be loose enough to get conversational on the page; they knew too much about how hard it is and how much every word means…all things you shouldn’t think about until later.

The other majors tended to approach fiction with a beginner’s mind, sort of flouncing through on a lark.

Personally, if I had it to do over again, I might consider studying advertising or marketing because those are forms of writing that require an awareness of audience that I think is lacking in most writing and literature programs. Say what you will about the ethics of those professions, but they are certainly focused on obtaining an effect from people.

Which at the end of the day is what writing is all about, even at its most self-expressive.

My English degrees taught me a lot about Gothic literature, the 18th century, the 19th century, critical theory, Edgar Allan Poe, the Harlem Renaissance, and Oscar Wilde…all of which I’m deeply grateful for, though I didn’t have to pay for those experiences. My friend William has read more Shakespeare than I have (almost all of it) and he works in a convenience store.

The real risk of an English degree is knowing more about the documenting of life than the living of it. With the right attitude, you can graduate knowing both, but you have to be the captain of your own education.

Which you’d have to do with any other degree.

Seriously, just major in whatever you want, write what you want, read a bunch of it, and sometimes type in a chapter from a book you love and notice how it works.

That’ll put you ahead of 90% of English majors, including me.

How Can I Sell the 10% of My Soul I Don’t Use All Day?

Quoth Todd: What is your advice for good writer day jobs / careers that allow a fruitful healthy writing life? After transitioning into a “creative” career, my writing output dropped off. I find myself using that narrative energy at work instead of on the page. While I love my career, writing remains important to me—and I’m left wondering how to find a balance without having to go all in with one or the other. Is that even possible? Thank you so much!

Thanks, Todd, for the great question!

When I graduated with my undergraduate English degree in 1994, I was delusional enough to imagine that I’d go on for a Master’s and PhD for a life of teaching college literature with plenty of time and intellectual energy to dabble in letters at my gentlemanly leisure.

So the “day job” backup plan I had for writing was a career that was actually LESS lucrative and stable than writing.

For various reasons, I ended up in an office instead. For the first ten or so years of my working life, I was horrified that every passing moment in a cubicle was draining the lifeforce required to write vibrant, world-changing fiction. I often walked during my lunches or hunkered in the stairwell with my head in my hands, wondering if I’d ever escape. I worked in bursts of dramatic usefulness and skated by the rest of the time.

There’s only so long that can go on, and I’ve been lucky to have two bosses in a row who “got me,” understanding that I need to be creative and entertaining to get work done. Once they got me, I kind of got me, too.

It turns out that I like entertaining people with flamboyantly amazing things, and I can do that with non-fiction during the day and with fiction at night. They feed one another in a strange way: doing big cool things at work gives me the confidence to do the same at home, making it normal, just something I do.

How can you get there? Here are some questions I wish I’d asked myself at the start of my working life:

  • Setting aside your artistic ambitions, does the day job you have suck even if you WANTED it to be your career? If so, find another one, end of story. If the job and the people are toxic, you aren’t getting ANYTHING done, much less art.
  • Do you get energy from working with people or from working alone? If you’re stimulated by people, a good day job would involve interacting with them. If you aren’t, you’ll need something more isolated.
  • What kind of writing would you like to do?
    • Is there any hope that a day job could RELATE to it in some way? A lot of my hoaxing stories come from writing ostensibly non-fiction corporate communications. I’m really good now at making absolute bullshit seem plausible.
    • If there isn’t that hope, can you find a job that uses completely DIFFERENT creative skills? Visual if you’re a writer, writing if you’re a musician, musician if you’re a sculptor, etc.?
  • How much physical work can you endure or enjoy? There’s definitely something to be said for the kinds of jobs that require very little expressive creativity, but many of them require hours of standing or lifting or steering a backhoe. Bukowski was a mailman. Could you write after sorting mail all day?
  • What kind of lifestyle are you willing to accept? Will you feel more free to create if you’re always hustling for the next gig, or do you think stability would be better? Neither is a wrong answer, just something to know. How much stuff do you want to buy? Do you need to own a car? Do you want to own a house? Just because society wants you to want these things doesn’t mean you have to.
  • What kind of social class are you willing to accept? A friend of mine has been an assistant manager at a convenience store for the last thirty years. He makes enough money to fund his interests, but not many people call him “sir.” Does that matter to you? To what extent does it matter or not matter? Be honest with yourself and don’t feel you’re not dedicated enough to your art if the answer is, “I want to be middle class.”
  • How do you define “a good job”? For me, that means it:
    • Accepts (even appreciates!) my weirdness and creativity.
    • Respects my talents in communication.
    • Rarely (but not never) requires long days to finish.
    • Places me in contact with interesting and creative people who want to do cool things.
    • Pays me some decent bank, as the young folks say.
  • On your best day of writing, how long REALLY could you write? Almost certainly not eight hours or even six, but probably more like four or even two or less…which is fine! It’s good to remember that a day job can’t steal your whole soul.

The answers to those questions will help you in seeking a new job or accepting the one you have, I think. After about a decade of thinking that an office was killing me, my answers to those questions led me to conclude that:

  • I enjoy the freedom to write whatever I want instead of endlessly hustling.
  • At my best, I only write two to three hours in a day anyway, and it’s still possible with discipline to get those hours in even with a day job.
  • I need more stability than I do adventure so I can have the adventures in my head.

The rest came down to adjusting my schedule to a working life. If you’re finding that your job is exhausting you, it might be worth writing BEFORE you go to work. (Several of my stories were written in conference rooms at 6am before my day started at 7am.) Now, I write in the evenings after dinner, usually for about ninety minutes and somewhere between 300 and 1500 words.

Really the only choices we have as artists in our current society is trying to evade the working life or adapt to the working life so it works for us, with all the effort each entails.

I think the first step is deciding what kind of life you want to live and what kind of art you want to create, and then build backwards what you need to get there.

Good luck!