When I was a sophomore at Princeton, I had to pick a major. It seemed like the one crucial decision that would determine my life’s path. I sweated over it for months.
There were certain disciplines it was easy to eliminate, the ones that had always seemed like Greek to me. Math. Physics. Chemistry. Greek. History was sorta interesting but I couldn’t stand memorizing dates. Economics? Of course not, I wasn’t going to become a businessman. Art? Give me a break. Who majors in art at Princeton?
English? Well, I loved and devoured books but I wasn’t sure what an English degree would give me. I didn’t want to be an English teacher. Or an academic writing books about other people’s books.
But I’d always loved to write. Stories. Essays. Articles for the school paper. If I could write for a living, I knew I surely would be happy.
My freshman year Joyce Carol Oates came to Princeton to teach creative writing. She was the legendary author of hundreds of novels, winner of the National Book Award, literary goddess, and I was terribly excited to study under her. But first, she had to let me. Unlike every other department, past grades were not sufficient for admission to Princeton’s creative writing program. I could only study writing if I submitted a writing sample that Ms. Oates deemed worthy.
I don’t remember what I submitted from my huge pile of stories, just that she rejected it. Sorry. I wasn’t good enough to be a real writer. Or even to study to be one.
Instead, I stopped writing stories and majored in Political Science, graduating summa cum laudewith a BA I never used for anything.
If you want to be a doctor, you need a degree from a medical school. Lawyers need to pass the bar. Dentists need the sheepskin too. If you want to be an architect, a trucker, a plumber, or a dog groomer, you need to pass a licensing exam.
Someone else has to give you permission to practice your trade. Once you have your piece of paper, you can go out and make a living drilling teeth or driving big rigs or blowdrying Lhasa Apsos.
Ironically, having a creative degree isn’t such a guarantee. Being an art school grad doesn’t make you a painter. Painting does. A degree from the Berkley School of Music won’t make you a jazz trumpeter. Playing jazz does, night after night. And a degree in creative writing, even from Princeton University and Joyce Carol Oates, doesn’t make you a writer. Writing does. Typing does. Posting on your blog does.
Creatives prove themselves by creating. Not by earning degrees.
Every day you sit down to write, whether any one else reads it or publishes it or gives it a passing grade, you are a writer. And there are no short cuts, no letters after your name that validate what you do. No one else authorizes you, you gotta do it yourself.
And it is hard work. That’s the only guarantor that you’ll become a creative professional, the toil. If you spend three years majoring in creative writing, the main thing you’re learning is to write, regularly, for a thousand days. And then many days beyond.
I stopped writing stories for pleasure when I received Oates’ verdict. The goal was gone. But years later, I started writing just for me once more. I couldn’t help myself. I loved it. And every time I sat down at the keyboard, I got a little stronger, clearer, more at ease. Regaining my confidence, experimenting, exploring, and doing it over and again, that became my education.
The same is true for drawing, for playing music, for cooking, for any creative path you choose. The best teacher is experience, repeated, sweaty experience. They don’t teach you that at Princeton, only at the School of Life.
Forty years later, I haven’t published as many books as Joyce Carol Oates but I have no doubt that I’m a Writer. And in those forty years, I’ve never read another novel by Joyce Carol Oates. She’s just not good enough for my Kindle. Sorry.
17 thoughts on “How to become a professional.”
In the late 1980s I went to “Portfolio Day” at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto where I got a chance to show my work to a representative from RISD. After looking through my collection of posters, signs and publications, their evaluation was “your work is intensely typographical.” It was not intended as a compliment. And the absence of any drawing was held up as a fatal flaw in my plans to pursue education in art.
I took the guidance seriously, and immediately abandoned all plans to pursue art education.
My creative impulses found outlets otherwise–how could they not–but as I’d been officially certified as “not an artist” by the official arbiters, I never thought of myself in that way.
It’s only been in recent years that I’ve developed the confidence, after half a lifetime of making “intensely typographical” things, to consider that I might have been making art all along.
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Thanks for ALWAYS cutting through the BS of The World! I published one tiny article in a community newspaper, but I knew the editor. I prefaced every compliment with that caveat, but I knew it was a good piece. I work at a Big Ten University where I’m sure many people would be happy to recount the ways I’m not a “real” writer, but I have nearly 100 journals that speak the truth. To quote Billy Crystal in “Throw Mama from the Train,” “A writer writes…always.”
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Joyce who? Great post Danny, I find myself looking forward to your post trying to make sense of the ebbs and flows of Danny Gregory. Your writing has made a difference to me and a lot of other people. I will google Joyce though because I still trust your instincts. Remember she probably had something to do with your becoming who you are. Even if it was a karom shot
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Great post! Maybe, I could actually do a blog! You have motivated me to try! Inactivity certainly does not breed success. Mentors and critics should start their responses with “IMHO” – a sort of disclaimer that they aren’t the last word on the subject. I’m sure many brilliant careers have been thwarted by a thoughtless comment.
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quite right. IMHO.
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Spot on. Blood, sweat and tears. I’m in an art group but some never create anything. I can’t call myself an artist or a painter unless I am doing it in a regular basis!
When people ask me who I am I say a human. If they ask me what I do I say I write, make art, counsel folks, teach, clown, and play. Some of that is for money and some is to stay sane. Sometimes those overlap. That’s a fine day on the mudball. I took English at university when I was already a practicing psychotherapist. People asked why I didn’t take psychology and I said my clients never ask me about their synapses. They tell me their stories. Knowing some of the classic literary ones helps me.
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I stopped painting for more than twenty years because someone’s husband, who I babysat for, made a derogatory comment that my paintings were trash. Unfortunately, he was some kind of genius, one of those people who knew every single answer to trivial pursuit. I believed him wholeheartedly because he must know something about art, he knows something about EVERYTHING. Silly me. He obviously knew nothing about sixteen year old girls who loved to paint and just needed the tiniest bit of encouragement. Thanks Danny, you’ve been hitting them outa the park lately. IMHO, ;o)
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I became a professional writer mostly by writing. Like you, my Poli Sci degree didn’t help much, and my subsequent journalism degree was of only marginal use. One day, many decades later, I decided that I really wanted to be a painter. Although I had studied art history, I’d had only occasional art instruction, mostly in my teens. So I found some professionals who also taught and I practiced like mad. Obsessively, really. Since that time 15 years ago, I’ve completed more than 1100 paintings and participated in shows in a dozen museums and hundreds of galleries. I’m still obsessed. Best of all, I have the fun of thinking about other people waking up to my work in their homes, and making them smile over morning coffee or evening cabernet. I only needed one person’s permission to make that dream come true. Mine.
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So lovely to hear from you again and to read more of your great writing, Karen. You are greasy artist. IMHO.
Thanks, Danny. I look forward to seeing you again some time when you’re visiting in Cali. Best wishes for all your many creative endeavors!
Once upon a time, long ago…the 1960’s, I was teaching fourth graders…and one subject I was supposed to teach was English or Language Arts….by the textbook, there were tons of lessons about nouns, verbs, sentences etc and every once in awhile the students were to write a paragraph on some topic given by the text. While all those lessons about grammar, punctuation, sentences etc are important to being ” well educated” in the structure, the students could not WRITE and it did not get better on up the grades in high school! I was this wild young teacher who actually thought students should write everyday on topics they chose or on topics we studied in science or social studies. The other stuff in the text, I taught in “mini lessons” in the first few minutes of class. I was not alone……Others caught on to this…It was not original with me. It became known as “Writer’s Workshop”….Then the ” teach to the test” took over….alas, I retired. But now the teach to the test folks are wondering why kids can’t write….Duh!
Now I draw, sketch, paint everyday….Thank you Danny….Everyday Matters! Drawing or writing..
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Thanks Danny! You made a clear point, one that I need not to forget. I love to paint but always felt short as I didn’t do any related studies (I’m an engineer). I have always felt as I needed a piece of paper to prove that I’m an artist, but as you say, “painting makes you a painter”! Also, thanks for all your work, I’ve discovered you and your story many years ago, when art was not yet in my life.
Oh, if only we didn’t give other people so much power over us. When I read about how thoughtless comments have derailed people from pursuing their dreams it just makes me want to scream. Illegitimi non carborundum!!!
Yes Danny you can write! Think it’s better to say nothing than to discourage creativity.
Love your posts, especially this one. I relate to it not as a writer but as an art teacher for 39 years without a degree! Not making the money one would if one had a degree but knowing that I am doing a great job and getting fabulous work from my young talented art students!!!!
Thank you Danny. Very funny ending. I’m still laughing.