Monday, January 28, 2008

A Career in Writing: Four Things My College Education Didn't Teach Me

Like a lot of freelance writers out there, I have a degree in English. When I was in school, I remember a lot of people saying things like "So what are you going to do with it--teach?" and "Hope you don't mind starving!" But I never planned to give up food in trade for a career--and as much as I respect teachers, I never wanted to be one. All I ever wanted to do was write.

I loved earning my English degree. I loved reading different authors from diverse cultures and time periods. I loved writing, loved talking about writing like it was the one thing on earth that mattered most, loved critiquing other people's work. I think that my writing degree taught me a lot about writing as an art--and practically nothing about making a living at it.

I think that many liberal-arts schools fail students who study the arts. The cliche of the "starving artist" is so prevalent that a lot of schools don't expect more of their arts students than to continue their interest in art as a hobby. The tragedy is that so many humanities graduates leave school with thousands of dollars in debt and no idea how to have a meaningful career. Many of us wind up taking jobs outside of our interests out of necessity, and these can turn into a lifetime of work that feels meaningless and unfulfilling.

But for some of us, writing on the side just isn't good enough. We've got the talent--we see the pros at work and we think, "I can do that." But it takes more than just talent to make a living, and a lot of writers don't realize this until they get out of college and have to figure it out for themselves. Here are four things I wish my professors would have told me before I graduated.

It's not just about your creative talent. It's also about your self-promotion skills. Before I graduated, I thought that if I wrote well, opportunities would naturally come my way. But that's not really how it works. There are thousands--maybe millions--of people out there who want to be writers. Even if only a small percentage actually wrote anything worth reading, that's still a great deal of competition to deal with. When you're a professional writer, you'll be competing with other writers for the attention of agents, publishers, critics, clients, and readers. Many of them will write worse than you. Many will write better.

When competition is this fierce, you have to be able to promote yourself at every stage of the game. To succeed as a writer, you have to hone your self-promotion skills as much as your writing skills. I never took any classes on marketing in college--no general business marketing courses, and no specific courses on marketing myself as a writer. In my opinion, it should have been a required part of the curriculum.

Want to do your creative work on the side? It's harder than you think. When I was in college I just assumed I would have some sort of job, and I'd work my writing around that until my "real career" came through. After I graduated, I found that the reality was somewhat different. I worked full-time at several different companies, and I found that my employers didn't care about my outside interests: if the company needed me to stay late and come in early, I had to do it. I often felt too drained after a long day's work to put much time into developing my outside interests into a career I could live with.

Many people assume they will find fulfillment doing what they love outside of work. But unless you have a very undemanding job, it can be tough to find the spare time you need to truly live up to your creative potential. And when you have other outside responsibilities to deal with--like kids, for instance--the time you have to pursue your passions can quickly dwindle into nothing. I didn't realize how important flexibility would be to me until I lived without it for years.

There are plenty of ways to integrate your talents into a career that works for you. When I was in college, I assumed I had two choices as a writer: novelist or journalist. Nobody told me anything different. No helpful career counselor sat down with me my senior year and talked to me about career options that would let me use my writing skills. I talked to a career counselor, but they didn't really know what to do with me--I didn't want to go corporate or be a teacher, like most English majors.

I wish someone had talked to me in college about careers for writers--jobs like the one I have now. If you're artistic, you don't have to shove your talents into a dark, unseen corner of your life while you labor away at something you have no interest in. You can craft a career as a consultant or freelancer doing practically anything. Performance artists can become public speaking experts. Visual artists can become graphic designers. Writers can become copywriters. You can work for a company, or you can run your own business.

Business isn't as scary as it looks. I never considered running my own business as a college student. I thought that "business" and "creativity" were two extremely different, unrelated categories. I didn't see how businesses need--even thrive on--creative people. I just saw lots of people with conservative suits on and seas of drab cubicles, and I assumed I would never really fit in any business environment. I had classes that taught me to think like a creative person--like an artist.
But now, my "business environment" is my laptop. And business isn't just about wearing a boring suit and working in a boring office. It's about making your dreams a reality.

When I was in college, I had a very different attitude--and I faced a steep learning curve as a result. It took me years to come around to the fact that I'd have to be business-savvy in order to thrive. If I had had classes in college that taught me to think like a businessperson--and to use business principles to get what I want in the world--I might have had a plan right out of college. I might have been able to hit the ground running.

With the amount of money a college education costs nowadays, I feel colleges owe a little more to their humanities graduates. They owe them a solid education in their chosen field--but they should also take them seriously as future professional artists. Many creative types don't need a degree to succeed--nobody cares what Susan Sontag, Pablo Picasso, or Ian McKellan majored in. But we do need guidance in how to make a living at what we love. Give us that, and a college education will be more than worth it.

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