Would I Send My Daughter to a College Writing Program? — an essay
“Do you have time for a few questions?”
CONTENT WARNING: This essay contains explicit language. Please be advised.
First, a brief recap
If you’ve read the Where My Creative Writing Degree Has Fallen Short series (here’s the first post), or the post on How My Creative Writing Degree Has Served Me Well, you can feel free to skip ahead to the next section.
If you’re new to Literary Trail Magic, welcome. While I’d urge you to read the aforementioned posts, I understand if you’re short on time and would rather cut to the chase. So, I’ll go broad strokes here before diving into the core of the post:
I graduated from Grand Valley State University—a public university in Allendale, Michigan–in 2012 with a B.A. in creative writing, wherein I emphasized in fiction and creative nonfiction.
Because I do not come from money, college was no small financial investment. My mentality upon entering college was to waste as little time as possible–to do well in my courses and to graduate within four years.
Despite that very practical logic being applied, what myself and my family had been taught over the years was that getting your bachelors degree was essentially acquiring a key to success and comfort in the United States. Get that degree, work hard, smile and everything will just take care of itself.
There are a lot of ways in which my degree has fallen short, including in the realm of financial success and comfort as a citizen, but also in the realm of writing and publishing itself.
On a scale that’s far more subjective than that of “where things have fallen short,” there are also a few ways in which my degree has served me well, not only as a writer, but as an employee, a partner, friend, and citizen. This includes my confidence as a writer, as well as how effective I am at giving and receiving feedback.
Given the time and energy I’ve spent reflecting upon my own experiences, I of course have developed thoughts and opinions on what exactly I’d tell someone if they came to me and asked, “Hey, do you think it’s a good idea to study writing at XYZ university?”
And I thought to myself: who better to place as the hypothetical inquisitor than my own daughter?
Let’s dig in.
I’m not going to go into much detail about my daughter, but I will say that she is two years old at the time of this writing. Which is to say: if this hypothetical becomes reality, it won’t be for some time, and by then perhaps the entire landscape of a college education in the United States will have changed (I’ll be crossing my fingers). Maybe in fourteen years’ time university in the United States is, as it is in many seemingly wonderful countries, very inexpensive, or even free. In which case: the answer I’m about to give would change entirely.
But I think it also needs to be said that I have no idea who my daughter is going to be in fourteen years. I hope that I’ll know, at least most of the time, what it is she’ll need of me in crucial moments. In every moment, really. And I hope, rather than chart a course for her, that I’ll help build the confidence in herself to carve her own path, whatever shape it ultimately takes.
I want to always help her feel safe—not in a way that says, “Don’t take a risk,” but in a way that says, “Do take a risk, because I’m here to help you get back up if it fails.”
Okay…one last note before delivering a verdict I’m sure you’ve been itching beyond relief to hear. Which will be best set up by the following questions:
Why did I opt for my daughter to be the one asking then? What does that serve?
It’s actually for the very reason that I suspect some may consider the hypothetical spoiled: I’m fully invested (including financially—realistically, if the current landscape prevails fourteen years from now, I’ll be helping her pay for her education). If a stranger came up to me and asked for my viewpoint on whether or not they should attend XYZ University for creative writing, I’d be polite and encouraging. And, if there was time, I’d ask questions to help inform the words I’d say. But the truth is: I wouldn’t treat that stranger or their decision at all like I’d treat it if my daughter were to ask. Nobody would.
So in other words: the role my daughter plays in this hypothetical scenario is to bring you—and you, and you, and you—as close to the truth of how I see it as possible.
And without further ado… if my daughter came up to me and asked if I thought it was a good idea for her to study creative writing at XYZ University, I would first say:
Do you have time for a few questions?
Assuming she’d say, “Yes,” I’d proceed to ask:
What are you hoping this degree helps set you up for?
You might be–and she might be, too—thinking, “For writing, duh.” But the reason I’d want to ask this question is to help determine whether or not she should be thinking about going to college at all. A question that, I feel, is very valid. As mentioned, I grew up thinking that college was something of a golden ticket. I no longer think that is the case, and I will not force that line of thinking upon my daughter—or anyone. You can be successful without a college degree. You can be happy.
At the same time, if my daughter wants to go to college, I’m not going to be in opposition to her; I will not be telling her that, “college is for sheep,” or that it’s a waste of time and money. For many, it isn’t.
So if in the hypothetical, my daughter were to say—as I suspect a lot of aspiring writers would when asked this question—”I want to write novels,” that would lead me to respond one way. But, if she were to say, I don’t know, “I want to learn about book publishing,” that would lead me to respond another way.
However she’d respond to that question, I’d hope to ask some variation of this next:
Have you looked into other schools and what they offer?
My reasoning: as I was exiting high school, I didn’t look into other colleges and what they had to offer. As mentioned, there were definitely some positives to going to GVSU, but in many ways I do feel like I limited myself by casting a teeny tiny net (I applied to one university and was accepted by that one university). I’d rather she didn’t do the same thing.
And finally, however it is that she answers that question, I’d want to ask two joining questions:
1) What sorts of funding opportunities are there?
And, assuming that college in fourteen years won’t have undergone radical change and become something that’s inexpensive, I’d then ask:
2) Have you thought about how long it’ll take for the investment to pay off?
The reasons why I’d ask these questions probably seem pretty straightforward. And they are, to a degree. But, there’s some nuance involved. Because again, if she’s determined to go to college, my goal is not to deter her. I want to encourage her to pursue what it is she wants to pursue; I only want to help guide her in the moments she wants guidance at all.
So my goal in asking these questions is for her to consider the reality alongside the dream. The Have you thought about how long it’ll take for the investment to pay off? Question, in particular, is a good one for this. It wasn’t something I was asked. It wasn’t something I’d considered on my own. I was naive, and thought that, I don’t know, in just a few years’ time at most I’d be well on my way to being a wildly successful writer. Which can happen, though for reasons discussed here and here, it’s very, very, very unlikely.
From this line of questioning would sprout, I’m sure, lots more questions–one I keep thinking of is, How tied to this university are you?—but we’re trying to get to a verdict here, right? What would my answer be?
Well, at best—if my daughter were interested in this particular creative writing program to learn, say, the publishing business, and after looking into other schools and determining that this one hit upon the things she wants and needs, and plenty of funding opportunities exist—my answer would be:
And even then, more questions would follow…
Is there anything else you might be interested in?
If you’re really wanting to go to this university, what programs does this university do better than any other school out there?
Because in my experience, you can have many of the same things a creative writing program offers—crucial things for practicing writers—in less time than a degree would take, and while paying far less money.
In other words: yes, I believe college can be a worthwhile investment…but not if you’re wanting to go to college to learn to be a writer.
Therefore, I’d suspect if my daughter came to me and asked if I thought it was a good idea for her to enroll in a creative writing program at XYZ University, the overwhelming majority of the time I’d say,
No, I don’t think that’s a good idea.
In short, I think in general it’s a bad idea to study creative writing at a university (moreso as an undergraduate student than as a graduate student) because, as I’ve discussed in the aforementioned posts, it’s a poor financial investment.
Yes, I do mean the heaps and heaps of the student loan debt that appear throughout a college education in the United States. But the problem isn’t just that. No, the problem with student loan debt as it relates to studying creative writing is this:
How quickly you can pay that debt off
How quickly you can pay that debt off while also maintaining a profession that’s, at the least, semi-related to what it is you studied
Whether or not an alternative route exists that A) helps you reach the same level of expertise as a college program would and is B) more cost effective
Let’s bundle the first two bullets there. And let’s start off by listing the “tuition & fees” estimates for ten undergraduate creative writing programs that are often held in very high regard (in alphabetical order; data compiled from The College Post and U.S. News).
Columbia University—$65,524 per year
Emory University—$57,948 per year
Harvard University—$57,261 per year
Northwestern University—$63,468 per year
Oberlin College—$61,965 per year
Stanford University—$56,169 per year
University of Iowa—$31,904 per year (out-of-state), $9,942 per year (in-state)
University of Miami—$53,112 per year
University of Texas—$56,686 per year (out-of-state), $20,214 - $28,894 per year (in-state)
Yale University—$62,250 per year
Okay, so… not cheap, right? I mean, assuming you’re attending as an out-of-state student, the range of this list here is $31,904 - $65,524 per year. Which, sure, if by sophomore year you become a permanent resident of that state and can then claim tuition as an “in-state” student, you’ll cut your costs significantly.
But let’s assume you don’t.
And let’s assume that you don’t fuck around, that you hit the ground running and maintain pace—that you complete your undergraduate degree in four years.
So you’ll have spent between $127,616 and $262,096 on that creative writing degree.
To compare, when I look at the student handbook for GVSU from 2007-2008 (when I’d have been applying), it lists full-time students as $12,923 per year (out-of-state) and $7,600 per year (in-state). I, of course, was an in-state student (the university was about 75 miles from my hometown). And I graduated technically in four years, but had to tack on a summer semester between my junior and senior years in order to do so–due to my switching majors one time. I repeat one time, after my first semester, during which I’d been a film and video production major.
I’d have to look back at various documents for exact numbers, but let’s say that my bachelor’s degree in creative writing cost me $30,400.
$30,400 is not $127,616. And $127,616 is not $262,096.
But to me and my family, $30,400 was no small amount of money, particularly as the country was facing the Great Recession. Proof: I’d earned, I think, three separate scholarships that helped cover somewhere between $2,500 and $5,000 in my first year of college, and still, I took out a loan to cover costs, and so did my parents.
And, proof: it was only in the last few years that my loan could be paid off, and so could my parents’ loan—eight, nine, ten years after I graduated.
Now, is it possible that an aspiring writer attends Columbia University, graduates with their degree in creative writing, and goes on to right out of school A) get a high-paying writing job that pays $80,000+ per year, and/or B) write and publish a popular, and very lucrative, book? Sure. It’s possible. But it is highly, highly, highly unlikely.
And, even if they did, would that $262,096 be fully wiped even in the first five years after college? I’d say that too is highly unlikely. Because, well, life. Bills. Trips. Setbacks. Etc.
Just for “fun,” let’s say you were able to start chipping away at that $262,096 mound while you’re in school. Let’s say that you served tables 15-20 hours per week (a high variability in earnings, I’ll admit, which muddies the figures you’ll see below). And, let’s say you were also very fortunate and your parents/grandparents had spent years building a stockpile equaling $100,000 for your college education.
You’re still looking at, what, between $100,000 and $125,000 in debt?
The real kicker, as I experienced following graduation, is that a writing job is no guarantee, particularly a high-paying one.
(Which brings us to our second bullet point.)
In fact, while I was searching for jobs at a highly unusual time in our economy, I didn’t secure a writing-related job until two years after I’d graduated. And it took well over 200 job applications to do so, submitted to companies in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Detroit, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois and in Seattle, Washington. In the meantime, to pay the bills I worked as a grocery bagger, a leasing agent, a Best Buy customer service rep, and as a cashier.
Oh, and the starting pay for that full-time, writing-related job (it was a content marketing job; I wrote click-bait bullshit for activism sites)? $26,000 per year. Which, though I knew it wasn’t much, felt like a lot of money to me then. I mean, I could actually save maybe $200 per paycheck, you know? And that’s while driving my grandfather’s old car (a 1988 Buick; didn’t hold up well in Michigan winters, let me tell you), and really scoring on rent (I paid $200 per month to live at my cousin’s house, which was a 45-minute drive from the office).
Shitty as the job was in retrospect, upon getting that job a huge weight was lifted. Did I like writing clickbait? Fuck no. But at least I could point to the job and say, “Hey, it’s a start,” and maybe even begin to accept the idea that I hadn’t made a huge mistake by choosing to pursue writing. That didn’t exist when bagging groceries.
So in my case (and the case of many others): the debt is one thing if you’re paying it down slowly while doing something you love (and studied to do: i.e. writing), but it becomes a whole other thing if you’re paying it down slowly while doing something you kinda sorta hate. You become angry. You become resentful. You become doubtful—of yourself, of your decision-making, of the path you’ve chosen.
I’ll concede that things today are far different than they were in 2012, 2013, 2014, etc. Society is different and has been shaped dramatically by technology, by politics and by a global pandemic. The globe is far more connected than it ever has been, and that does mean that writers—among other disciplines—have far more paths to making money as a writer, even while in college. Want to freelance? You have tons of options. Want to score a remote job? Plenty of those available. Want to write a newsletter, charge for it, and focus on directing traffic there? Sure, go for it. Want to spread your word for free on Instagram and build an audience? Sky’s the limit.
Many of the tools you’ll need are even free.
And that all brings us to the third bullet point, an alternative route. Which, if my daughter wanted to be a writer and were looking for advice, I’d highly recommend.
What I’d recommend instead
Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves that in our hypothetical my daughter’s wish isn’t to “hold a writing job”, but to be a novelist. And before we jump into an alternative route I’d recommend, let’s briefly say this: while it’s possible that an aspiring novelist would complete their undergraduate creative writing program with a manuscript that is not only shoppable, but it is extremely attractive to big publishing houses, it’s very, very unlikely. I can’t speak to the curriculum of today, but in my fiction writing courses we weren’t building a novel; we were taught, and instructed to write, short stories. The focus was on the fundamentals of storytelling. Building blocks–toward something bigger, sure, but… a sad fact: novels very often aren’t lucrative, and short stories even less so.
That’s to say, a student is likely to complete their undergraduate creative writing program with a few short stories to realistically be shopped to mid-tier literary journals, the majority of which don’t pay. Those that do? I’ve seen many cases where it’s something like $125 per story.
($125 is 0.05% of $262,096, just for some context. At that rate, one would have to publish 2,097 short stories to pay off that debt. [NOTE: nobody would rely solely on short stories to do so, just an interesting thing to consider])
So okay, my daughter wants to be a novelist. College is expensive. Graduating from a creative writing program doesn’t guarantee anything in terms of jobs. It can’t even guarantee that a writing-related job will be available, or attainable, upon graduation.
So…what? How can my daughter become a novelist then? And not just a novelist, but a successful novelist? How can she become a successful novelist and not spend the next 20+ years of her life paying off student loan debt?
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the paths to being a writer today—even, yes, a novelist—are endless.
It really can be as simple as: if you want to be a novelist, go write a novel. And when you’re done with that novel, write another novel. And that’s it, that’s all you “need” to be a novelist. No formal education required.
That’s one side of the spectrum.
On the other is all the formal education: you get your bachelors degree in creative writing, you earn your MFA and you go on to get your pHD, etc.
Because the spectrum is so wide, and the paths so endless, making a choice is no small thing, and can actually become quite daunting given the nuances that every aspiring writer brings to the table. Which is precisely why in this hypothetical my daughter has come to me for advice: the very fact that she’s asking me for advice says to me that the path she has observed is one that has at least some questions attached to it. She’s spotted something that renders it uncertain; it is not the path of a mathematician, for example, one that by comparison is more often than not straight and narrow.
And I think this is what I’d say (in bullets for clarity):
A college degree can be a great thing. But more often than not, it isn’t a great thing for writers (for all the reasons I’ve presented in the sections above).
If you feel a certain pull toward college, in general, let’s explore what you could study instead–studying UX Design, for example, involves many elements of storytelling and is far more sound of an investment than creative writing, financially-speaking (at the time of this writing, there are many jobs available in UX, and the field is expected to grow in the future). Depending upon where you attend, you likely can minor in creative writing, join an existing writing club on campus, or create your own. And/or, with how many ways there are to learn the fundamentals of writing online and in your extended community–remember: the fundamentals are what you’ll be taught in your courses/workshops–you can always piece it together outside of your studies.
If after you earn your bachelor’s degree in a field that isn’t writing you still feel a pull toward writing, apply for an MFA program, but only one that pays you to be its student (a living stipend, plus fellowship/assistantship funds). Their acceptance rates are not great, but they do exist. This isn’t the only accelerator to your writing career, but it’s the best available on the academia route; where you’re surrounded by writers in undergrad who may not actually be interested in writing (in my experience, their interest in writing cratered shortly after graduation), your MFA cohort will be comprised of those who are very serious about writing. The school, by providing a stipend and/or a fellowship/assistantship, is investing in you and your cohort, to become landscape-shifting writers; they will devote what resources they have to making that happen vs. draining you of those resources.
And if you’re 100% set on becoming a writer, and you’re 100% set on becoming a successful writer as soon as possible–and you don’t want to study something else and you just don’t want to waste your time working a job that isn’t your writing– this is what I’d recommend:
Get a job. Part-time if it alone can support your basic needs. That way, you don’t have to stay at home, and have ample time to study and/or practice writing. Preferably, this job is an in-person job and it’s around a lot of different people–think: server, bartender, cashier, retirement home assistant, etc. Why? Because, no matter what you decide to write, you’ll be writing about people. Learn about them. Learn from them. Be annoyed by them. Be tickled by them. Love them.
Invest $500-$1,000 in books on writing craft. We’ll figure out the order they should be read in later.
Save 10+ hours of videos on YouTube to a “Watch Later” list. These should include literary lectures, author interviews, author readings, and craft talks: not just on literature, but on design, on creativity, and on storytelling. Again, we’ll figure out order later.
If you don’t already have three or four contemporary authors that you’d like to model your work and career after, let’s find them. Let’s get all of their books and read them in the order in which they were published. Let’s also visit all of their websites and social media profiles. Let’s follow them, subscribe to their newsletters, attend their events, etc. Let’s learn what we can from their writing, but let’s also learn what it could be like to walk a day in their shoes. Consider it a very distant apprenticeship.
Subscribe to 2+ podcasts about writing and/or storytelling. Also, subscribe to 2+ podcasts where success in the arts is discussed. Hearing others talk about craft and about the artist’s life will help prepare you for how it is you should approach your work–stylistically but also logistically. The nuts and bolts of story is important, but so are the nuts and bolts of “the industry.”
Join or start a book club. Hearing how others navigate and interpret the same text(s) you’ve read will help shape who your “Ideal Reader” is—who it is you write for every time you’re at the keyboard.
Join a writers workshop—one that requires you to pay money for entry/participation and is led by an experienced writer. If this is available locally and in-person, go that route (always try to stay among people; writing is otherwise a very lonely endeavor). But if it’s something that’s only available virtually, do that. Do this year after year after year. Not only will it help your writing, it’ll help you build your writing community.
Create a website for yourself as a writer. Choose one social media platform as well and start posting as a writer. Lay the foundation for your writer’s platform.
Read. A lot.
Write. A lot.
Travel. Abroad, if you can. See how people live in cultures that are not your own.
Volunteer. Somewhere. Anywhere.
Go to museums.
Fall in love. Again and again and again.
Get your heart broken.
Get a new job.
Submit your work.
Let yourself feel whatever you feel following a rejection.
Lean on people.
Let others lean on you.
Discover new hobbies.
Develop a daily writing routine. But also, live a life. Be a person who writes, not a writer who “persons”.
Trust that this path will change.
Trust that you will be ready to navigate those changes.
Trust that every day you’re alive contributes to you and your offerings as a writer.
The holes in this plot
Are there holes in this plot? Yup. No doubt. Let’s expose them. And, let’s see how I’d imagine responding.
My daughter’s heart is on writing and on this university and only those two things. Then I’d recommend a gap year, and if not an entire year, at least a gap semester—big decisions shouldn’t be made urgently if they don’t have to be. Make sure that it isn’t just an impulse here. Consider taking general classes at the local community college to see if being a formal student is something you still want to be following high school. A year down the road you still want to be a writer? You still want to go to that school? Great. And if you feel like you can’t wait? Okay. It’s your call. Then we must prepare to maximize this opportunity.
My daughter follows this advice, to a degree. She goes to college but studies something else. But after two years of studying, she wants to change her major to writing. I would strongly advise her to not change her major, and to see her current major through. I’d suggest that, if she hadn’t already, to change her minor to creative writing. And, if she’d already done that, to consider joining writing clubs on campus, in the local community, or online. I’d suggest all of these routes because changing your major so late in the undergraduate game is a costly, costly decision to make. While it’s true that in your first couple years of undergrad you take general courses, imagine it as having wasted about $120,000 (two years of $60,000 per year in tuition + fees). It’s hard to recover from that.
My daughter doesn’t go to college for writing and it ultimately hurts her confidence, seeing how much success others who DID go are having. I’d tell her that I understand. And I’d tell her that there are a lot of factors at play when it comes to writing success, the overwhelming majority of which are out of her control. I’d try to explain how important of a role luck plays, and timing–sometimes a far more crucial role than talent or consistency. I’d try to tell her that just because someone is having success now doesn’t mean that you won’t have success later; success as a writer doesn’t just come through one gate, not anymore. And, I’d ask her, How do you want to handle it? Is there something to correct about this course? And, How can I help?
My daughter doesn’t go to college for writing, and goes on to establish a writing community. But, there aren’t people in her community that are near her age. While having a writing community at all is a huge step in being a successful writer, I’d tell her that, yes, it’s important to have writers of the same generation also in your corner. If you’re interacting only with writers who are later in their career than you are, the idea of “community” can backfire and can lead instead to feelings of isolation. I’d tell her that it’s important to “come up” with someone, or with a group of people, to grow, to evolve, to push one another. And, I’d work with her to brainstorm how best to go about meeting writers around her age who could be part of her community.
I’m sure there are glaring holes that I’m missing, but I think, regardless of the path, the bottomline is adjacent to something I said earlier: the path of the writer is not like the path of a mathematician; it is undefined; it is winding; it is steep. And, no matter what route(s) you take, there will be “holes” and there will be tradeoffs. There will be struggle. And, maybe, just maybe there will be “success”.
While it’s true that in the majority of scenarios, I’d try to guide my daughter away from the pursuit of writing in a formally academic setting (unless she’s getting paid to go there), I again find it very important to note that I believe the best thing I can do if she ever comes to me for advice (on this topic or on any other) is to listen.
To listen to what it is she wants, how it is she wants to get there. To listen to how she’s saying it. To understand how best I can help her live the life she wants.
As parents—or, let’s face it, as friends, as coworkers, as children—it can be difficult to not project your experience onto the experiences of your child, or onto experiences of theirs that haven’t even happened yet. I’m sure I’d stumble. And if so, I hope I’d realize it before it’s too late, apologize, and see how best I can correct my error.
Because it isn’t about me. This life is hers. This choice is hers. I believe that even when she finds herself in moments where deciphering it is difficult, let alone trying to articulate it, she will know best.
If she does ask me about my own experience, however, I’ll be happy to tell her—where my creative writing degree let me down, where it served me well. I’ll tell her also about how when I was 24, I’d signed on at a boutique literary agency for representation of two book-length projects (Wounded Tongue and Strays Like Us), and how in that introductory call I’d expressed concern to my then-agent about not having an MFA, as it seemed that successful writers then all held one. And though our relationship would sour, and though eighteen months later he would quit as an agent altogether, I’ll never forget what he told me then:
“That’s partially what makes you and your projects so much more interesting–all these people have MFAs and you don’t.”
Cover image for “Would I Send My Daughter to a Creative Writing Program” by Jorm Sangsorn.