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.