Mark Terry

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Birthday Conversation

October 20, 2010
Today is my oldest son's 17th birthday. Happy Birthday, Ian!

In a weird circumstance, Ian has a half-day of school today, starting school around noon (weird) because the freshmen and sophomores have MEAP testing. As a result, he and I took Frodo for a walk this morning, which gives us a decent uninterrupted chance to talk.

We talked about college and if he was still considering getting a degree in creative writing (yes, he's interested).

This is not a terribly easy topic for me to discuss with him, actually. I know how tough it is. On the one hand, why not? Pursue your passions, go for it. On the other hand, I'm a skeptic of creative writing programs, because although they give you plenty of opportunities to write, which is good, and presumably give you useful feedback, if they were so great you'd think all writers would benefit from them, but I just don't believe that to be true. Writing is something you learn primarily by doing and being persistent, although I don't doubt useful feedback might help, although the quality of academic-based feedback is somewhat suspect, in my opinion.

So when I suggested he stay open-minded to the communications programs, or technical writing, which would actually give you some usable skills to go along the ability to stay in a writing program, well, I'm just being Dad and I accept a certain amount of eye-rolling is involved on his part. In fact, if I give him any fatherly advice about pursuing your dreams that I hope he takes to heart, it's "stay open-minded." Stay open-minded to writing opportunities or other work and creative opportunities that may come your way. Because those doorways can lead to some wonderful places, both in terms of economics and personal satisfaction.

I also know that, in life, we all need to find our own way. And that's probably truer in making a living in the arts, although I think it just applies to dealing with life.

In which respect, I think Ian will do just fine. If he chooses to pursue a creative writing program with the hopes of being a novelist and/or scriptwriter, I know all too well how brutally disheartening--and satisfying--such a path can be. I wish him the best of luck. As I said yesterday, don't quit your daydream.


Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

If he gets a creative writing degree, he can spend his twenties being a barista or bartender. That's pretty good studying ground for a writer. *grins*

Or he can get a double in English and go be an editor or something. That's pretty good, too.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I suggested he spend some time poking around Michigan State's website, looking at different majors and programs. Then I went ahead and found one in the Communications school that's Media Arts & Communications that focuses on digital media for the film and TV industry, advertising, video games, etc., and allows you to double-major in whatever you want to. He's taking a digital media class now and likes it quite a bit and his instructor thinks he's got a lot of interesting ideas. I suspect it would be about ideal for him, particularly with where TV, video, etc., is going, but it would still allow him to focus on the creative writing aspects of things, but have usable skills when he graduated.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I hope he doesn't go for a creative writing degree. My opinion is that they'll teach you to write stuff nobody wants to read. You might get a job teaching other people how to write stuff nobody wants to read.

But what can you do? My nephew, who is brilliant at just about everything is majoring in Fine Arts! He has a minor in mathematics. Could've been worse -- he almost minored in philosophy.

But on the other hand, it's better to make youthful mistakes when you have a chance rather than start right off making the mistakes of maturity.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Actually, part of today's conversation was my perception that an awful lot of creative writing undergrad degrees and significantly more MFAs in creative writing are focused on so-called "literary" writing, not commercial and/or genre writing. I know that my nephew Dylan, who is in the creative writing program at Bowling Green, Ohio, was looking for a genre-writing emphasis, which can be sort of hard to find. Dylan and Ian are both very interested in SF and fantasy.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

He should do marketing! Lots of advertisers end up being writers, and they have a killer edge with all the marketing junk. Plus they're aware of the audience, which is something many writers don't quite get right away.

11:26 AM  
Blogger L.C. Gant said...

I got my degree in English with a specialization in creative writing, and to be honest it almost discouraged me from writing altogether.

As others have said, the majority of such programs focus on producing literary material, not commercial. I am not a literary writer, so I felt very alienated and frustrated in that setting.

I agree with Natasha and Eric that your son would have better luck pursuing a communications degree. Many of the "hot" jobs right now involve a combination of creative writing skills and knowledge of social media. I've heard they pay better, too.

Hopefully he'll keep his mind open to that line of study. If not, well, it's not the end of the world. I wish him the best of luck!

7:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Technically, writing programs such as MFAs don't teach "literary" writing. They teach the building blocks and mechanics that ALL writers need to employ. They simply choose only literary examples to demonstrate the lesson. In reality, whether you're writing a literary novel or a commercial novel, you're drawing from the same bag of tricks, it's all in the execution.

The main difference between literary and commercial writing is that literary writing is far more reliant on subtext, subtlety, and nuance. That's not to say that commercial writing can't employ these factors as well (some often do, in fact), but literary writing RELIES on them. Literary writing exists solely to showcase these techniques. Commercial writing can succeed just fine without them (nothing wrong with straightforward storytelling) but it's often stronger when these techniques are used.

Many writers don't have a degree in writing. The most important thing any writer can do is read and absorb. Studying writing helps put all that reading into context. It can help a writer understand something that years of observation have noted but now they finally have the tools to identify what it is and why and how it works.

True. If you want to write commercial fiction in most MFA programs, you'll be shunned. The stereotype is true: the programs are largely (not solely but largely) populated by self-important hipsters who live to praise the abstract writings of the "in crowd" and tear apart the work of anyone they don't approve of (and then you're expected to thank them for their feedback). MFA programs rely heavily on workshopping, which is the blind leading the blind with students providing feedback when they themselves are just learning.

But. They can also be tremendously helpful in getting a stronger grasp of craft. You might only be reading literary works but it's a good way to understand those building blocks that every good writer needs. And there's nothing saying that once you graduate with an MFA, you're required to only write depressing, abstract books that will most likely only find a home with tiny presses with no distribution. You can write whatever you want.

5:31 AM  

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