Slice of Life: You Don't Need College to be a Writer
Written by
Laurine Bruder
October 2017
Written by
Laurine Bruder
October 2017

College was a unique experience for me. While I am now a proud graduate of UW-Madison, having earned my Bachelor of Arts in English, college ranks as one of the biggest regrets of my life. Though I learned much, most of it I've forgotten, and it's been little more than a year since my graduation back in 2016. Further, UW-Madison wasn't my first college. I also attended UW-Barron County from 2008-2012. Yes, it took me 8 years to complete a Bachelor's degree. Even longer, if you count the brief, frustrated period I went to college back in 2004-05. I should have known, even back then, that college wasn't my path.

My path was that of writing. I just didn't know how to make it so. So I did what any Gen Xer with a post-Baby Boomer parent did: I went to college, figuring everything would fall into place and I'd be able to get a job.

Then the economic crash of 2008 happened.

Today, dear readers, I'm stepping away from writing tips to talk about something near and dear to my heart, and to the heart of many young millennial writers and not-so-young Gen Xers: college and writing. (Warning: post contains some strong language.)

For my entire childhood, my single mother, from a family of farmers, talked about college. It was the mecca, the holy land from which intellectuals sprung and jobs were achieved. Just by going to college you were guaranteed a job. That was the ultimate dream my mom had for me: get a 9-5, 40 hour a week job, with benefits, and be set for life. When I talked about my dreams of being a writer, they were talked over by reminders of going to college, going to law/med/vet/whatever school because you can't get anywhere with an English degree. I was the first in my family to go to college and I have yet to earn that magical job that comes with getting a college degree.

Despite earning a degree in English, and with a year internship under my belt, I was unable to get a job in the publishing industry or even another internship. Why? Competition, rising standards, my own inability to impress, and the fact that the publishing industry is flooded. One internship I applied to had 300 applicants. I was lucky to make it into the second cut, though I didn't get the position. Even though I have that higher education, it doesn't guarantee anything these days. Gen Xers and millennials are the most highly educated generation in...well, generations. Entrepreneurs and freelancers abound, in all job fields. Winning a job is harder than ever. I needed more than an English degree to get a job in this new market, even in the field I studied for.

But writing was all I ever wanted to do. So for years, I dithered, caught between my dream of being a writer and the dream of my mother's generation.

And I suffered for it.

Throughout my 20s, I racked up $50,000 in student debt, was homeless, passed through more jobs than I care to admit, and even had to run out of an apartment in the middle of the night. I didn't write a damn thing because I was too busy drowning myself in the bowels of the internet and various comfort foods due to my high stress and depression.

Mine isn't the only story either. Every close friend I have who has gone to college, even those who majored in things like graphic design or computer tech, were unable to get jobs in their fields after the crash of 2008. I considered going to law school just to find something to do with my degree but I knew I'd be miserable there too. Writing is what makes me happy. It's all I've ever wanted to do. And it wasn't until I graduated that I realized:

I didn't need college for that.

This is the message I want to spread to all young writers. College is an insanely personal decision, but if I could take it all back, I wouldn't go to a 4-year college. What I would do? I would go to community college to earn a certificate in administrative work or paralegal or medical office assistant so I could have a decent day job. I'd also take classes offered through that college's continuing education department (often overlooked) on writing, marketing, business, and website design/construction. All of these things would be far more useful to me as a writer AND give me skills that would make me desirable to hire.

Sadly, I only learned these things after I left college and took a good look at my life. I realized I was squandering my time and that I had wasted it following someone else's dream. The irony? My mother went to college the same time as me, for social work, graduated in 2015, and she's been unable to find a job in her field. She is experiencing now what I tried to tell her years ago about college and the job market. I, on the other hand, have found a day job that pays decently and doesn't stress me too badly, so I can write all I want. I'm more focused on my writing than I've ever been, I plan to finish my work in progress by the end of November, and am happier than I've ever been. I just wish I didn't have that $50,000 debt hanging over my head. And I wish I'd had this epiphany sooner.

So here is my advice for young writers who are thinking about college now:

Think about what you really want to do with your life. Sit down, take out a piece of paper or open a blank document, and write it all down. Everything, even half-formed scraps of plans and ideas. No parents or friends or well-meaning naysayers hanging over your shoulder, just you. Do you want to publish your books? Or do you want to work in publishing as an editor or agent? Do you want to teach? Finding out what you really want is the first step. Making it happen is the second.

Once you've figured out what it is you want, work on making it happen. For example: if you want to be a novelist and traditionally publish your books, start thinking about a day job. Writing is a second job, a side hustle, that won't earn you money right away. You need something to pay the bills, but you also don't want a job where you'll be so emotionally/mentally drained that you won't be able to put pen to paper. After all, if you want to publish something, you have to write it first.

If you want to self-publish, start doing research about editors, book cover artists, marketing, business strategies, and, of course, write your book. Self-publishing is like being a small business owner, you need a variety of skills to do so successfully. Also think about a day job, because, again, you have to pay the bills and you need steady income to do so.

Inversely, if you want to write as a hobby and not as a career: take writing classes through online places like SkillShare or through your local community college. Take these classes on the side and pursue what career you want as your main objective.

Think about what you want your end goal to be. Do you want to make a living as a writer? Do you want your books on the shelves of your local bookstores? Do you want to put your book in as many readers' hands as possible? Then research on how to draw up a business plan and account for things such as budget, upfront costs, and long term plans. (Again, see where the business skills come in?)

Research the fuck out of the writing industry. Find out all you can about publishing, writing craft, agents, marketing trends, and how it works. Get involved in online writing communities through Facebook or your local writing group. Having support as a writer is paramount. Yes, family and friends can be supportive, but nobody understands a writer like another writer. No one can help build your career like a fellow writer, either.

It won't be easy. Naysayers are everywhere and when people see you're following your dream when they didn't have the courage to? They are going to tear you down. They will do everything to make you doubt yourself, when as a writer, you already doubt yourself every time you put pen to paper or words on a screen. Because you have courage and they don't. You have the courage to say, “No. That is your idea, your dream. This is what I want” when they never did. So before doing anything, before even making a decision about college, find your community first. Find people who will have your back when things get rough. Because I've learned that if even one person believes in you unconditionally, it makes all the difference in the world. And while college may provide that community in some aspects, it's not the only place to find it.

College provided me with ample opportunities to learn, both good and bad. I learned Japanese and took an entire class about manga. I didn't really need that writing and money class. I've lost all 4 years I spent learning French and while I read a lot of the old classics, I will never pick up Jane Eyre or Faulkner again. And don't even get me started on the creative writing workshops offered by 4-year colleges. That's a rant for another post.

You don't need college to be a writer. Just by putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, you ARE a writer. So, before you fill out that college application, before you consider plunging yourself into life-crippling debt, stop and think: is this what I want? Will my experience at college be worth it? Do I absolutely need this in order to write? Question everything. College can be a wonderful experience, full of learning and friendships and expanding your horizons, but it can also be a huge boulder that comes with an even larger price tag.

Thanks for reading, look for new posts on Tuesdays, share and reblog if you like this one, and until next time, dear readers, take care and keep writing.

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