Learning to Write

This past week I got good news: I was accepted into the fiction major at Northwestern University! I know I’ve claimed to be studying creative writing here for the past two years, but the truth of it is that the studying so far hasn’t been official. To major in creative writing at Northwestern University, you must first be accepted to the university, and then, in the spring of your sophomore year, you must be accepted to the “sequence” of classes that are requirements for the major. The degree you earn is a bachelor of arts.

I want to take a minute to talk about other types of writing educations.

Other undergraduate programs offer BFAs (bachelor of fine arts) instead of BAs in writing. A BFA degree allows you to focus your coursework on the art you are studying. For example, at the Pratt Institute’s writing program, students spend all four years primarily in writing studios with a smattering of other courses as electives. At Northwestern, even as a writing major, 12 of my 48 classes (or one full years’ worth of classes) will be distribution requirements, from fine arts requirements to math, sciences, and ethics requirements. I chose to go to a BA school instead of a BFA school mostly because at the time I was applying for colleges, I wasn’t sure I wanted to dedicate my education to writing. But if you are one of those people who know exactly what they want to study and you don’t want to waste your time in other subject areas, the BFA is probably for you.

Another option for studying creative writing is the MFA (masters of fine arts). This is for people who have already graduated from college. Iowa has the most famous MFA program, but they are becoming more and more popular. A new trend is low-residency MFAs, such as what the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts does, where you do most of the classes online and then convene for intensive classes once or twice a year.

In fact, online education for writing is very popular. Everywhere I go, I see advertisements for online writing classes, webinars, and even writing universities. I don’t know how legitimate these programs are or how effective it is to learn across the internet instead of across a table, but the beauty of learning writing is that it is really about how much you put into it. If you are willing to take feedback, and if you can find good writers to give that feedback, you should be able to learn about writing simply by writing and having it read.

The truth is that a lot of writers have never formally studied writing. So much of writing is not taught in the classroom; it is taught in experience, in reading, in writing things and having people tell you it doesn’t make sense. In class, the techniques we go over aren’t really helpful until I have a story already written and I’m trying to figure it out how to fix it. The writing you can do on your own time, and so many people do. Meeting writers at Whidbey Island last summer introduced me to people who do not have classes and teachers at their fingertips: they have to seek out their educations, be it in books, in webinars, in MFA programs, or simply in conversation with other writers.

It meant a lot to me to get into the creative writing program. It’s why I came to Northwestern, and the thought of not getting in was simply demoralizing. But the truth is, I would be a writer whether or not I was accepted, and I would learn to write no matter what. After all, I’ve gotten this far without being a fiction major.

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