Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
The College Hobby
By Bryn Neuenschwander
2002, By Bryn
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.
I GO TO COLLEGE?
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.
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).
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.
SHOULD I STUDY?
what interests you.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
AM I SUPPOSED TO DO ALL THIS?
tell your parents I said this.
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.
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.
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
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.