On Choices

Great people see potential in a certain light.  Schools, specifically undergraduate schools, consider potential quite differently.

Over a year ago, I visited a bunch of colleges that I didn’t choose to attend.  As liberal arts schools, they sold themselves in a very specific way, a way that appealed especially to me.  They knew what they were doing.  They advertised well, they made people feel at home, and they made every prospective student feel the same way: good.  Everyone leaving the school after a visit felt as though they could really, truly, have fun and learn at that school.  But mostly, have fun.

For me, this feeling came in the form of the ‘undecided’ option.  One school— small of campus and creaky of stairway, with free food and a stone library— offered two full years without having to pick a major.  Through freshman and sophomore years, the student needed to do nothing but pay their bills and take random classes, until junior year when they would have to pick a major or, for those who really couldn’t decide, make up a major of their own.  All this because they were creaky of stairway.

Over the past four years, I have seen piece after piece of advice— essay after essay, talk after talk— encouraging people to pursue their passions and pursue them now.  If you want to be a writer, write.  If you want to be a cartoonist, cartoon.  Before you can become anything, you have to do it first.  This struck a chord with me as well.  (In fact, I’m sure I’ve turned around and given the same advice here on the blog.)  If you work hard enough at something, you can succeed at it.  This was the message all these successful people would give.

Funny, isn’t it?  I’m not trying to say that people running colleges are not successful people, nor invested in the success of their students.  But why is the approach so different?  One group says you don’t have to decide what you want to do— just play in the sandbox as long as you want, then figure out a general direction.  The other group says if you know what you want to do, you have to do it— there isn’t time for the sandbox.

The big difference, obviously, is the attitude of the student.  It’s basically a flow chart.  Do you know what you want to do?  If yes, do it.  If no, stay undecided for two years and make up your major.  It’s that simple!

But is it?

I fall into both camps— this can’t be a flow chart.  I believe I know what I want to do for a living.  I also believe that, given the chance, I’d still be undecided as to my college major.  Mutually exclusive, you say?  Nah, I say.  It depends on the perspective.

I don’t consider the creative writing major to be much use.  While I agree I have much to learn in the craft of writing, I have learned more by actually writing than sitting in a class talking about writing.  Others might feel differently.  For myself, I know I wouldn’t jump at the chance to study creative writing in college.  Instead, I would learn about as many things as I can— with writing in the background like a constantly-playing radio station, I would take classes on… well, anything.  I would make a living on being undecided.

I like to learn new stuff.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  Last year, I sat down on a quiet Saturday and spent the morning teaching myself rudimentary sign language.  Do I remember much of it now?  Not really, but it was fun.  I pick up on weird things and try to teach them to myself.  I attempt a million different courses of study and never get far, but I enjoy myself.  That’s what I’d do if I had all the time in the world.

At a liberal arts college, with writing humming in the background, I would have all the time in the world.  I would attend random classes.  I would make strange friends.  I’d make the college into something it had never been before— I’d build a palace out of that sandbox they offered me.  And would I pick a major before junior year?  Nope.

Rather than attend a liberal arts school, I decided to attend a federal service academy with two possible majors.  Two.  Neither one is ‘undecided’.  You are required to select your preferred major before showing up.  About two months into the school year, you sign a paper and make it official— you have picked your major.  You are on a track that will last for the next four years.  After that, you can expect another eight year commitment, also based on that choice.

You have two months to make that choice.  Contrast that with two years.

What’s the difference here, for me?  Think about it.  At one school, I get to major in whatever I want.  I’m writing in the background, learning all I want about a variety of subjects, in an environment that allows me to do whatever I want.  I pay a lot of money for that, and afterward (hopefully) I have a greater wealth of knowledge about the world and depth of knowledge about writing.  At my current school, I have limited choices.  I’m writing in the background, learning about a small collection of subjects, in an environment that allows me to do almost nothing but work.  In terms of money, I don’t pay anything— in terms of time commitment, I pay upwards of ten years— and afterward I have a greater wealth of knowledge about the world and depth of knowledge about writing.

Black out anything that doesn’t mention writing.  I’m left with the following: “I’m writing in the background— afterward I have a greater depth of knowledge about writing.”  That applies to both schools.  So what’s to compare?  Only the secondary things of life: time, money, life lessons, education.  While the time commitment is huge, the rest pays for itself.  That’s what I compare.

When I interviewed for this academy, someone asked me, bluntly, why I wanted to attend if writing was my goal.  “You’re making a four year detour from your true goal— how does this help you?”  I offer only this: my writing education would be the same whether I spent $60k a year on it or not.  It’s how I decided to proceed.  So, which is better?

Note: I realize this post is basically me thinking to myself, but that’s how this blog ought to be.  I’ve toyed with the idea of shutting the blog down, because I don’t have much to write about writing anymore, but when did my blog get to be about that alone?  This blog is to help me.  This blog is to help me keep writing.  If I’m restricted to one subject, it’s never going to work.  Thus, look forward to a blog returning to its roots— whatever I want to write about, whether movies or music or random stuff I think up.  For those who mourn the old writing-seminar version, don’t worry; we’ll always have writing to do.  In fact, Katie is hosting our annual New Year’s Short Story Challenge on her blog.  Write, edit, and publish a story in 24 hours or less.  Look forward to that this New Year’s Eve.


6 thoughts on “On Choices

  1. Yes. This.
    And my comment is coming in single syllable words…

    But seriously. This is the very argument I have for why I have not gone to college for writing. And part of the argument of why I’ve not gone to college at all.

    Looking forward to blog posts to come, as well as whatever you come up with for the short story challenge, if you are going to participate.

  2. I’m not mourning anything. In fact, I think the non-writing-seminar is more helpful to me in this stage of life, anyway.

    I agree that a Creative Writing degree never seemed helpful to me. In fact, from the first time I heard of it, I thought it was ludicrous. What? There’s a thing where you go to college for four years to…learn how to write stories? In a classroom? It never made sense to me.

    This past year, a lot of people have asked me what I want to do for college, and a lot of people have assumed the answer would be something having to do with writing, especially creative writing. And a lot of people were then shocked to hear I want to do nothing of the sort. Like you, I just like to learn interesting things, and pretty much anything counts as interesting. But I’ve decided college isn’t the best place to learn random interesting things, nor is it a good place to “learn how to write.” Would I love to take two years of advanced chemistry, just for the fun of it? Absolutely. But that’s not going to help me get somewhere. And to get somewhere I kind of have to know where I’m trying to get to. (Imagine that.) So I’ve been mostly working on picking the best major to help me learn the skills and knowledge required/recommended for the type of job I’m working towards. And in the meantime, I’m making use of the fact that learning happens everywhere, all the time.

    My dad often says work is the best experience you can get, and I’m starting to see that more and more in my own life. Want to learn how to communicate with people from an astonishing variety of backgrounds? Go work as a cashier in a mall food court. Want to learn how to get over being covered in grime and other gross stuff? Go clean the kitchen of a fast food place every night for a week. Learning while being paid eight bucks an hour. What more could I ask for?

  3. My dad pointed out to me once that a lot of authors don’t start out as authors—they spend like ten, fifteen, even thirty years doing something else first. (Teaching seems to be a common one, I noticed.) When he told me that, I felt despair because I didn’t want to spend a minimum of ten years before my writing actually went somewhere.

    It slowly started to make sense lately, though, and it finally clicked like…yesterday, actually. If it takes me ten years to get my writing published, those ten years aren’t wasted. I’ve improved immensely over the last five years of writing—in another ten, I very well might be brilliant. That’ll be ten years of life experience and ten years of writing practice. It’s not like I’m going to stop writing in that time.

    I’m going to major in graphic design. (Yeah, not a great one for a reliable income, I know.) I’ll be pursuing another passion of mine and allowing myself to have those ten years. What I find really interesting is that pursuing both art and writing, I’m finding so many parallels between the two and it’s actually kinda cool.

    Anyway, as Katie said, I look forward to future posts, whether they’re about writing or otherwise.

  4. Well put, sir!
    To be honest… I need to make sure I have a direction, too. Without one, I just procrastinate. And my major, while applicable to writing, is more dedicated to writing for just pure fact, not fun fabrications. Mostly, what I’m hoping to learn from this is how to edit… I already know something about writing. I know very little about editing and revision.
    Happy new year!

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