A lot of careers have obvious training paths. Doctors go to med school, lawyers to law school, teachers need certain education courses, those who want to do certain types of high tech work often enroll in certificate programs. These programs don’t come with job guarantees — there’s a lot of debate these days over whether law graduates can get good enough jobs to offset the cost of their education — but there is no question that you have to get those credentials to follow most of those careers.
This is not true for writing or, indeed, for most other creative careers. There are educational credentials you can get, but while some of them might help you get your foot in the door, they aren’t a necessary step in the process.
There’s really only one thing you need to do to learn how to be a writer: Write.
Well, two things. You also have to read. But that’s it. Classes, good English teachers, workshops, writers’ groups, MFA programs — all those things can be useful for some writers. But none of them are required.
I suspect that’s why so many people — especially parents — tell would-be writers to train for a day job and write on the side. That might be good advice for some writers, but it’s not what everyone should do. Still, if there’s no required degree, no specific training program, how can writing be a career?
It’s not just frightening for parents, who fear their child will never leave home and/or will end up living on the streets; it’s frightening for writers. There are no benchmarks, no certificates, no graduation ceremonies involved in just sitting down and writing every day. That’s why there are so many MFA programs in creative writing, why so many continuing ed programs offer classes, and why the best way to make a living as a writer is to produce books on how to write. These things won’t mollify worried parents, but they do make writers — and not just beginning writers — feel like they’re doing something.
Not that most writers aren’t writing regularly. People come to a writing career because they just can’t help but write. But it’s hard to take that writing seriously when it doesn’t fit into the standard model of a career path.
Which is why I wish I’d read Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing when I was in college and thinking about what to do with my life. Unfortunately, it wasn’t published yet. He wrote the essays over a 30-year period, but they were only collected in 1991. I didn’t get around to reading it until last year.
Bradbury learned to write by cranking out a story a week. He wrote every day. That’s how it’s done.
This ties in with the work psychologist K. Anders Erickson has done on deliberate practice. Erickson is the researcher behind the concept that it takes 10,000 hours of effective work in a field to become very good at it, an idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.
There is a key point here: you don’t just need to do 10,000 hours of writing. You need to learn from what you produce so that your work gets better as you go along. Some of that you learning by reading a lot. Some of it you learn by revising and by learning to read your own work critically.
And some of that you can learn by reading books on how to write, by taking classes and workshops, or even by pursuing an MFA. But none of those things will do you any good if you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing and learning how to both take and reject advice.
Writing programs are tools. They can be very useful. Clarion West was very good for me and so were some classes I took at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. They helped me connect up with other writers and to take my work seriously.
But programs don’t make you a writer. An MFA doesn’t make you a writer. Even publication doesn’t make you a writer (there are plenty of ghost-written books out there).
What makes you a writer is sitting down and writing.