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.

Is There a Way to Stay Visible Online While Preserving My Emotional Health?

Livia asks:

I think it’s become mentally and emotionally burdensome to be a writer nowadays, what with the internet sort of shoving the details of everyone else’s writing journey in our faces while we’re struggling to stay true to our own unique pace and milestones as artists. One must always be online and commenting, or risk being seen as an unsupportive and selfish asshole. How do you maintain balance and distance between what seems to be required of us as writers nowadays (promotion! community! etc.) and what writers typically need (silence, space, distance) in order to create and evolve?

Wow, that amazing question hits me hard because I have nothing but mixed feelings about promotion and community.

The lifelong attitude that has all but doomed me to obscurity has been, “If I have to tell you I’m awesome, I’m obviously not awesome enough.” The corollary idea to that, “If I have to convince you to let me into your tribe, I obviously don’t belong there,” hasn’t done me any favors, either.  

Both of those are deeply neurotic ideas gifted to me by my scamming bullshit artist of a father. I’d rather not succeed than succeed by fakery…which I’m doing quite well!

I am, in other words, basically a cat: I want you to pet me, but I ain’t coming over there.

However, I do know enough anthropology to realize that all communities require a show of commitment to join and stay inside. I guess our ape-ish ancestors needed to know they could trust us not to bail when things got tough. Back then, that might have required, I don’t know, picking and eating a lot of nits and fleas.

Today’s equivalent is social media, but every time I post, I wrestle with the sincerity of it all: am I posting because I have something to contribute or because I want people to know I’m alive and buy my shit? I really don’t want it to be that, but maybe I’m cleverly fooling myself.

I go through this exhausting test of my soul every time I post.

My compromise is to behave like I do with normal meat-space friends and acquaintances, checking in on them at regular intervals and responding if I have something interesting to say. It means that my “footprint” and “reach” are expanding slowly, but then, why have a bunch of fake friends?

Here is the cascading list of priorities that has been working for me as a creator in the modern world:

  1. First as a fan and friend, I want you to maintain whatever level of mental health (or neurosis, whatever) you require to produce the weird-ass work that’s important to you. That’s your first job as an artist, to protect and cultivate that by any means necessary. There’s not much point in promotion or networking if you can’t get anything written that matters to you.

    The minute that social media threatens the mindset for your work, bail out for as long as it takes not to feel that way. The peanut gallery can wait.   
  2. When you DO engage on social media, I suggest engaging selectively by imagining your contacts in tiers:
    • Close professional friends, people with whom I have shared a meal while talking about things BEYOND writing, like murders).
    • Professional acquaintances, people with whom I talk mostly business and writing but who COULD be friends.
    • Assorted randos for whom I hope the best even though I don’t know them well enough for a seamless interaction.
  3. Set yourself a “social maintenance” schedule, though it doesn’t have to be that formal.
    • I check in on close professional friends probably a few times a week and comment on their stuff.
    • I check in on professional acquaintances maybe weekly or every other week, commenting if I have something interesting to say.
    • I let assorted randos come to me, when I choose the level at which I plan to engage.
  4. Post your own stuff when you think of something interesting or helpful to say. 
  5. Be okay with your audience growing a little at a time instead of sudden bursts.

The main thing for me at least is not to do anything solely for the purpose of advancing my career. I don’t post vapid compliments unless they are SINCERE vapid compliments, and I don’t contrive things to say so people know I’m still alive.

I know there are agents and publishers now who insist on a social media presence, and I have no idea if I have enough of one to count. All I can do is the same thing I do with my writing: be authentic and win my readers in ones and twos.

It would be exhausting to fake being someone else.