The Kindling of a Flame: The Artist and Education

Raphael, The School of Athens. Source.
"The individual is all you ever have and all schools only serve to classify their members as failures."

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.


  1. Practically speaking, I'd be a lot better off (I believe) and a lot further in reaching my writeing goals if I had bypassed higher education all-together--all five years and two degrees of them!

    The fist couple of years I did receive some good instruction from a writing professor, but it only went so far before it STOPPED SHORT. And then it became a very painful and time-wasting battle of wills. Put simply, he had taught me all he could. I was clearly writing from and going toward a different direction. Our world philosophies clashed. He could teach me the mechanics of creative writing well, but outside of that, I felt increasingly frustrated because I was trying to grow and he couldn't help me with that (I daresay he tried to hold me back, though not on purpose).

    So there is certainly something to the idea that an instructor can shape, for better or worse.

    Now, if I had had the kind of professor I wanted/needed as an undergrad, I wonder if I would have gone to graduate school. As it turns out, it was a wonderful experience for me because I got to bond with a professor in the way I had always hoped and read about. My mentor and I remain close. Unfortunately, he is not in the writing school but the literary one, though they do have significant crossover.

    The American attitude of everyone-has-to-go-to-college is not something to which I subscribe. You are absolutely right in saying that university is not for everyone. I think it is unfair to students you would be better off at a trade school or diving into their vocations right away, to insist they fork out the huge costs for a degree (which, in the end, is only a piece of paper) or else feel unworthy if they chose not to attend.

    And I certainly agree that the best education for a would-be writer is READING.

    Last, can I just say deconstructionist criticism annoys the heck out of me? (It's like a bunch of people got together who despaired of or had no ability to create and decided to tear down those who could and invalidate every brilliant hing ever written.) But I've heard that's a usual opinion of the writing-degree vs. literature-degree inclined.

    Um, is that everything? I think so. If not, I'll come back, and ramble on some more!

    1. Ramble on as you like--I'm enjoying your thoughts. :) It's interesting that you had both the negative and the positive experience of instruction. They sound awful and wonderful, respectively.

      I totally agree with you about it being unfair to pressure young people into college when they'd be better off pursuing their vocations in other directions. Seriously unfair; it handicaps people with debt for years.

      Deconstructionism annoys me, too, and I think the writing-degree vs. literature-degree suggestion you've heard sounds a bit dismissive and unreasonably so. Going in with the intent of subversion and the presumption that all hierarchies are necessarily violent seems to me an act of injustice based on wrongful understanding.

      That prejudice and Freudian interpretations are the banes of literary criticism, as far as I can tell; both of them tend to say more about the critic than the original work.

  2. Jenna~
    I loved this. I can really see why college could be a distraction more than a help - especially when you already know what you're going for, and you've seen the sort of writers that can be (though aren't always, as you said) produced by the college writing system. I think that was actually one of the other good aspects of my school (Franciscan U. in Ohio, in case you're interested :) The theology professors were sometimes striving, but the writing professors weren't, and it benefited the students in that we didn't have to conform to trendy ideas of What-Should-Be.

    I responded, and I hope I gave you something to write about on Monday..

    Wow. Your under-grad sounds horrific. How frustrating..professors who become a limiting aspect are a difficulty. I wish I could say I never had one, but at least the ones I had weren't in writing, so dismissing them was easier. But I wonder if I would have gone on to take another degree if I'd had a bad under-graduate professor..I can see there being a lot of the mentoring aspect lost in a conflicting relationship.

    1. Masha, I didn't know you went to Franciscan! That is awesome. A handful of people with my married surname have attended there, including my husband.

      Thanks for your response. I think you've given me options. :)


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