|Raphael, The School of Athens. Source.
Like most people who study writing, I learned that writing can only be taught up to a certain extent. Beyond that, the writer needs something else, something not taught, but given.
"We’re very passionate about education in America," Masha says in her recent installment of the blogalectic; "we like the idea of everyone going to college." In the general sense, that's quite true. In the specific sense, meaning me, I'm—despite my fondness and respect for education—not quite comfortable with that last idea. Not everyone is suited to the format and demands of university, and as things stand, the debts generally incurred in the obtaining of a degree are terribly burdensome.
I'm not contradicting Masha, however, as she would seem to agree:
"...while I do think college can be helpful, it can also be in the way of developing as a writer. Flannery O' Connor reminds us that "there's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher." A bad teacher can form a writer in all manner of vices, and the best way to learn writing, through extensive reading, is something we can all do outside of university. I'm not against education, I just prefer not to see it idealized."I concur. I didn't go to university, not because I didn't want to—part of me has always wanted to—but because the expense far outweighed my expectations of how much it would have ultimately benefited me as a writer. Perhaps I was wrong; perhaps I sensed unfairly that too many writers-in-the-making leave academia with lots of information on the sort of storytelling that pleases deconstruction-happy literature professors, and less concern for what works for the average reader. Some of my own friends have proven that such a judgment hardly covers every graduate.
Even without college, I wanted education. Ergo, I decided—fresh out of high school—to read the classics. Mom pointed me to Austen, and once I got the groove of Regency prose, Dickens was an easy hop and Dostoevsky quite manageable. Hugo's 1200-page Les Miserables was a challenge I couldn't resist. Tolkien happened into my life upon the release of the first movie (I know, I know! At least I had the whole story read before the second, right?)
Apart from the fact that I still haven't read Moby-Dick, then, I've attempted and hopefully gained a respectable independent education in English literature. Let me not, however, discount the value of guidance—provided, of course, that it's good guidance. I certainly feel the lack of some of that, though having a couple of academics as critique partners does help.
Masha questions what education really means, what it is to us as individuals. Narrowing that down to the matter of what education means to an individual writer—for the sake of making this a blog-post, and not a thousand books I'm not qualified to write—well, education begins at birth and doesn't stop with our last formal class.
A writer's faculty is shaped mostly by reading. Good teachers guide reading and interpretation, as well as helping the young writer develop the difficult skill of matching the image he creates on paper with the image already existing in his head. A bad teacher can destroy a budding writer with too forceful methods of shaping, or methods not forceful enough. The faculty for teaching well is a gift at least as rare and valuable as the gift for writing—probably far more so.
Also, different writers need different educations, just as different kinds of surgeon need different wings of the medical school. The set of goals, the nature of the writer's individual gift, the sort of thing he intends to write, his instincts and independence and learning styles, the resources available to him—all of these things require tailored instruction. Maybe he needs grad school; maybe he needs to bypass university altogether and pull all-nighters of studying for no other reason than that he's just that crazy about his work. He'll pull all-nighters regardless. Maybe he needs a good English professor, or maybe he needs a steady critique partner, or both. Maybe he needs to read Hemingway and Austen thirty times apiece, trying to get at the heart of great work; maybe he needs to check out half the library before he can find his own voice.
Among the canon of overused truisms is the statement that there are many paths to success. It's also true that there are many kinds of success, but that's another blog-post. For now, enough to say that education is vital to the writer, but a Bachelor of Arts degree may not be. O would-be student, count the costs either way.