Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

The College Hobby

By Bryn Neuenschwander

2002, By Bryn Neuenschwander

Everybody talks about the writer and the day job -- balancing the two, knowing when to quit the latter, etc.  But what about those of us who don't have a day job yet?  What about all those writers out there who spend their daylight hours in class, not at work?  There's precious little advice out there for the writer not yet old enough to rent a car.  We have our own set of hurdles to cross -- whether or not to go to college, what to study there, and how to strike a reasonable balance between the things that are being graded and the things that aren't.

SHOULD I GO TO COLLEGE?

Anyone who tells you that you have to go to college to be a writer is lying.  There are plenty of examples out there of successful writers who did not go past high school (and probably even some who didn't finish that, although they are becoming rare).  This should not, however, be taken to mean that college is a waste of time for an aspiring writer.  Aside from giving you an education which you can then use to obtain gainful employment, you can learn a great deal in college. 

I'll address the academics themselves momentarily, but first I would like to point out some of the non-scholarly benefits to attending college.  Wherever you go, whether it's a tiny college in a rural Midwestern town or a big state university on the East Coast, you will probably be living in a situation unlike any you're likely to find yourself in for the rest of your life.  In college, you will most likely share a room with other people, at least for a few years, and if you're in a dorm you will be living cheek-by-jowl with a large number of other people.  This creates an atmosphere that is a far cry from the polite separatism of the suburbs, where you have grass and maybe a fence between you and your neighbor; at most you have a wall, one which may not block sound so well as you would like.  It's much more like an apartment building, and likely even closer than that.  College students are poor at keeping their lives discreetly hidden in their rooms.  At college, it is quite probable that you will see every sort of behavior you can imagine, in every sort of venue -- in the corridor, in the dining hall, in the TV room.  For fantasy writers, this can be a goldmine; you can apply your imagination to what you see and envision a medieval-era city, perhaps, with four people or more to a room.  Even if you write in a different genre, though, you will have an unparalleled chance to see human behavior at its worst (and occasionally its best). 

Also, once you join the working world and have to get up at a particular hour, you'll find that you're much less inclined to engage in 2 a.m. discussions of politics or relationships or a movie you just watched.  College students as a group tend to be curious and interested in having these sorts of conversations.  Not all of them, of course; there are plenty who just get drunk and pass out, or who spend all their time gossiping about the same trivial events.  But there are also plenty who are thinking about a lot of different subjects, and they're easy to find.  This can be as helpful as your classes, or maybe more so.  I've lost count of the number of times I've sat around dissecting just why the most recent episode of a TV show was so effective. 

WHAT SHOULD I STUDY? 

Study what interests you. 

I'm serious.  This is good advice for all college students, not just writers.  I've been preaching it to everyone around me for several years now, and have seen its benefits in action.  Study what interests you.  Not what you think is going to be useful.  You'll enjoy your classes, do more of your work, get better grades, and be less stressed if you're studying what interests you. 

Recently I had occasion to have this discussion with a freshman who wants to write fantasy novels for a living.  She arrived at college with the intention of majoring in English, because that's what writers should do, right?  The ensuing debate lasted for about an hour; I'll hit the high points here. 

English is very useful for people who want to spend their time analyzing other people's writing.  Not so useful for people who want to write their own.  For one thing, few schools have English classes where you'll get to read genre fiction, and while any writer can definitely learn things from reading classics or literary fiction, you can't learn everything that way.  And many of the writers I know who studied English say that, if it has an effect on your writing, it will only be to teach you how to create elaborate structures of foreshadowing and water imagery and irony.  These are not bad things to have in your writing; however, if you've constructed them deliberately, odds are they will come across as artificial and even pretentious. 

Then the freshman I was speaking to brought up creative writing classes.  The problem with these, as with regular English, is that there's often a strong bias against genre fiction, so you're in trouble if that's what you want to write.  The worst-case scenario is that your teacher will automatically assume that whatever you're writing is inferior, and will treat it as such.  The best-case scenario, unless you luck out and find a teacher in your genre, is that the instructor will not be able to help you with the problems peculiar to your breed of writing.  Can a teacher of literary fiction help make sure your magic system runs on coherent rules?  Can she make sure your worldbuilding doesn't have any major gaps?  Can she teach you to convey this information without turning it into an infodump?  Infodump is a major problem in science fiction and fantasy, and someone who doesn't write in those genres may have trouble helping you with it. 

Now that I've pointed out the bad side to the two standard "writer majors," what's left?  Study what interests you.  I recommend against picking a particular field because you think it will be "useful" to you as a writer.  I chose my major based on what classes looked neat.  And because I'm writing what interests me, and studying what interests me, the two have come together beautifully.  I write fantasy, and I study archaeology and folklore.  The margins of my class notes are filled with little marks that let me know what's written on that line is a story idea, not a note.  I do my reading because it's research, too, and it's neat.  There are far worse ways to pick one's major. 

That having been said, I will put forth a few general thoughts on what majors might be appropriate.  If you want to write SF, it probably won't hurt you to study whatever science field interests you; if you want to write hard SF, such knowledge is necessary.  Any writer, I think, can benefit from a field of study that emphasizes people and society, from whatever angle.  It doesn't have to be psychology.  History can be great, particularly for writers of fantasy or historical fiction.  Anthropology.  Sociology.  Religion.  Some branch of cultural studies, if there's one that particularly fires you -- Germanic languages and literatures, or Hispanic studies, or whatever.  Anything that exposes you to people and their behavior.  If you write fantasy, I especially recommend anything that exposes you to old or foreign modes of behavior.  Readers have seen enough stories set in watered-down ripoffs of medieval Europe. 

WHEN AM I SUPPOSED TO DO ALL THIS? 

Don't tell your parents I said this. 

My freshman year, I spent an evening thinking about my future.  Specifically, what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I decided, quite firmly, that I wanted to do two things to earn money: be an archaeologist, and be a writer. 

I was committed to both of these.  How would I get there from here?  Well, I was majoring in archaeology, taking classes on the subject, and working on digs in the summer.  What about writing, though?  I wasn't taking any classes on that.  I didn't have any homework assignments to do, with someone waiting to receive them and grade them.  If I wanted to be a writer -- and I did -- then I was going to have to fill all of those needs some other way. 

So I decided, then and there, that writing merited the same priority as my classes.  I would not feel guilty about the time I spent on it.  As a matter of fact, I would commit to it a the same level as I had my classes and grades.  I would write often, and revise what I had written, and seek out groups to give me feedback (since I didn't have a teacher).  I would analyze my writing, find out where I was weak, and work to fix that -- my personal equivalent of being required to take classes in both New World and Old World archaeology.  If a story needed it, I would do research.  Even if it meant extra nonfiction reading that wasn't for a class.  It was for my class, a class of one, where I was both professor and student. 

Your parents may not be thrilled with the idea that they're paying for you to go to college and you're giving something as high a priority as your classes.  I'm not advocating you fail your coursework, though; ideally, if you're both studying and writing what interests you, the two should go hand in hand.  But if you are serious about writing, then I say, behave as though you are.  College is a great time to get a writing education, so don't waste the opportunity.  Learn from your books and your professors and your roommates and that guy who's always singing Broadway hits in the hallway, and use it to prepare yourself for your writing career.