Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I'm a 21-year-old recent college graduate trying to figure out what I want to do professionally. I have a bunch of interests, but what I've always loved is writing. After going through a really rough time this past summer, being hospitalized, and subsequently being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I think it would make for a really interesting memoir. Now I'm looking at graduate programs in Creative Writing with a non-fiction concentration, but I'm worried: Is going to graduate school for writing suicidal? So many people I know are idealists that are out of work, and I don't want to be one of them. Is my dream of becoming a writer just that and nothing more? Is graduate school a waste of money? If it is, how else would I go about refining my craft and getting published? Help!
First off, congrats on making it through your illness and coming out well the other side. Lots of people with never get the medical attention they need, so it's great to know that you did and are positive enough to be looking toward the future.
But, as to your question, there are really two questions here: whether you should (or can) become a professional writer; and whether you should go to graduate school to further that goal. Let's tackle them one at a time, with three caveats: I'm a professional writer, and I have a graduate degree -- and I wouldn't really recommend getting into either without really understanding what you're signing up for.
First off, the graduate school question. Graduate school is very expensive and most creative writing programs aren't handing out scholarships to potential students, so you'll be taking on debt -- a lot of debt -- to try to get that degree. And, while you may indeed earn that degree (always look at the graduation rates!), it doesn't come with a book contract or a job: It's just a piece of (very nice) paper. Yes, a program like that might enable you to practice and refine the kind of writing you want to do, and you might find mentors that will help guide you into a career, but, frankly, the number of jobs in "creative writing with a non-fiction concentration" are pretty few and far between, and memoirist gigs are even more rare.
I don't know which programs you're looking at, but my neighbor does graduate admissions for a large, private university with a creative writing program, and he said coming to his school could cost you $100,000 between tuition, fees, room and board. Not to go all bankster on you, but a typical book advance for a first-time author-memoirist is almost certainly not going to amount to that, and your book would have to sell a lot more copies than almost any author's to even begin to cover what you spent on school.
I'll grant you that I'm pretty down on graduate school these days: I have seen the rare person make it work and parlay it into a great job that they otherwise wouldn't have gotten, and I'm sure people find it intellectually stimulating. But I feel like a lot of people go to graduate school -- I did! -- without a clear idea of what they want to get out of it or do after it and why that school or program is necessary to achieve those goals... and then they come out with a lot of debt that they need a good job to start even begin to pay off and no clearer an idea of what they want to do or how to get there.
Am I saying don't go? No, because you could be one of those people who really make it work. But what I am saying is that you need to think about what it is you want to get out of a graduate program, whether that is worth the money you'll spend on it, and whether you could get that another way (many community colleges, for instance, offer creative writing courses and charge a fraction of graduate school tuition). But only you can really answer those questions for you.
As for being a professional writer, I have been asked this a lot over the years -- in my last job, I referred to myself as the Designated Intern-Scarer. So, let me scare you: writing pays the vast majority of us pretty poorly. Many professional writers take side gigs to be able to write professionally, or lean on supportive partners, or count pennies to buy Ramen and toilet paper while waiting for checks to come. And then there's the part where you don't get to decide what you write about -- editors do. Personally, I got into writing to write about politics, and have nonetheless found myself writing about reality TV ("Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo" and "Dancing With the Stars," for instance), interviewing celebrities on a red carpet (which sounds cool until your editors instruct you to ask them about Spencer Pratt's rap career), chronicling musicians scheduled to appear at SXSW and even explaining the anatomy of my own hymen to readers to make ends meet. If you want to write for a living, you are likely going to have to make some tough choices about where your own ethical boundaries are, and how firm they are when your fridge is filled with mustard, moldy cheese and a jar of capers you don't remember buying.
Are you scared? Good. These days, full-time professional writing is all about the hustle. But that's not the only way to write.
There are people who live to work—I'm one of them—and people who work to live. I have found that having a 9-5 that I don't like and side activities that I do is not what makes me happy: I'm happier when my job is both work and my hobby, unhealthy as that may seem. But other people are wired differently, and having a job that pays the bills and a side project or hobby that they find intellectually and/or emotionally stimulating keeps them more grounded or is more fulfilling. You don't have to write for a living in order to write, and you don't have to start off writing for a living—I didn't—in order to end up doing so. Sometimes, having income gives you the opportunity to practice writing what you want, rather than what an editor will buy, and make choices about where you want to be published and under what terms.
Jami Attenberg, the author of the great book The Middlesteins, has written a lot about how she makes ends meet as a published author; she recently wrote some advice to another young person who wanted to be a writer. Her advice was to read voraciously (which I would echo), to travel when possible, and then this, which has stuck with me for days.
Also: talk to all kinds of people. Eavesdrop. Go to museums. Fall in love. Break somebody's heart. Get fired. Get drunk. Be kind. Basically just live your life to the fullest and read a lot and write a lot. That's a good place to start.
You've had a life-changing summer, but it's only December. And a really great memoir needs the kind of perspective that comes with time and experience, not just two years of classroom assignments and group critiques. Practice writing—all kinds of writing, for yourself and even for an audience, even if that audience is 10 people on Tumblr. And practice living, and practice writing about your experiences and sharing them and being misunderstood and writing it again in a different way. Seek out places that publish the kind of writing you want to do and ask them how they choose what they publish and what they pay when they do publish people's works.
The great thing about being 21 is that very few of your decisions are set in stone, and nothing is suicide (well, other than actual suicide). You can try things out, fuck up a little, and learn from both. But spend some time familiarizing yourself with yourself, and thinking through the real-world possibilities and the consequences of those possibilities, before signing on the dotted line for a student loan if what you really want is a book deal.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com