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May 3, 2007 | 7 Comments

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My daughter graduates from high school in a few weeks. She has good writing skills, a creative imagination, an ability to perceive correctly feelings and situations, and a keen curiosity. She will attend a small liberal arts college in September. She wants to study English with the hope of becoming a writer, especially an author of fiction, but most of those who hear her plans tell her that an English major has no value unless you want to teach and that all writers, except for the lucky few, starve. Can you give her some thoughts regarding an English education and a
life dedicated to writing?

Ed G.
Scottsdale, AZ

A fiction writer needs an anguished childhood, of course, and you may have failed her there, Ed. Maybe it's not too late. You could at least do your part and try to bully her into investment banking or corporate law so she can fight you and test her own resolve. But okay, an encouraging dad — I guess we can work with that. She should go to college without hard and fast plans and take an English course or two that requires some serious writing and find out how that does. A great many college English departments are still under the control of people who don't care for literature and who like to torture it, and that's not an education that's worth much. It's like studying economics with old Marxists: interesting, but a great deal is left out. I am an old English major and should be true to my school, but I honestly can't recommend it for writers. In my experience, which is limited, teachers have far too much sway, the students sit and soak up what they can. Whereas in the study of history, the student is more likely to get her feet on the ground and be able to argue her own point of view, which is good for a writer to do.

The qualities you attribute to your daughter are precious and I just don't want her to get bullied by jerks. But someone who perceives situations well can probably stand up for herself. Writers of fiction have come from the sciences, from the law, from history — not many from the social sciences, but a few — and of course there are the English majors. I wish her well and hope to read something by her, so send that along when the time is right. I need somebody to step in and write Guy Noir. I wish she would hurry up.


I have to agree with Garrison here, at least in part. I completely ruined my academic career by choosing to do my graduate work in the English department (My undergrad degree was in Medieval Studies, which qualifies me to say "You want fries with that?" in Middle English, but that is neither here nor there). He's right- they no longer seem to love the lit- deconstructionism really is torturing the text, and none of that made much sense to me. Read Chaucer from a Marxist perspective? WTF?!?!?!? Marx wasn't even around in Chaucer's time!

English has it's merits, but I would major in something else. Humanities maybe? Underwater basket weaving? If she really must, after taking a couple of upper division English classes (that's where the idiocy starts), take a Minor in English. That should satisfy the need for pedantry without extinguishing her love of learning.

Oh, Garrison, I am also an old English major and am so happy to hear you describe the problems of studying college English. You are right to recommend history.
I would like to share an anecdote from my graduate English study at the University of Virginia during the 80's. I was moving along in a mandatory literary theory course, and found it tedious (as did many others). There was one student who shined in the class. In an effort to get to know the guy, I asked him who his favorite author was. He replied, "I don't have a favorite author (as he turned up his nose). I"m a philosophy major and decided to do English, so that I can get a job when I graduate."

Dear Mr. Keillor,
The show from Columbus brought back many memories having been stationed at Fort Benning in 1967. I was surprised (pleasantly) by the facial hair and lack of the (red) necktie. Way to go bro!! Keep up the good work, and my Saturday's will continue to be scheduled around your wonderful show.
Dave A.

I won't argue that some lit/English departments aren't the best, but my classes were engaging, forward-thinking, and inspiring. My main point concerns the relative value of the B.A. in English. And there are LOTS of jobs that specifically call for one. Journalism, publishing, marketing/advertising/copywriting, and university staff jobs. Many kinds of companies employ writers and editors to prepare Web copy, brochures, press releases, and the like. If you want to be prepared for your future career, go to technical school. If you want to learn about yourself and life, and what it's all about, go to a liberal arts college and learn as much as you can about all kinds of things. Read lots of books and make lots of friends. You'll do fine.

I think we have more writers than ever in this country... and it's all due to the internet, text messaging, and IM, chat rooms, and My Face. Everyone seems to be writing, in different languages, no less (LOL!)

I've been a television writer for more than 20 years, and I find the most surprising thing for me has been that I need to learn to write in different "voices."

I may have a message (non-fiction mostly) that has to be told in visual, musical, textural, and even written forms. If I write a documentary narrative, the way I write a script must sound like a person talking. I must also write in a promotional print voice, a press release voice (usually emailed, but for newspapers and magazines), and a web page voice.

But, no matter the voice, I find that if I'm writing about something that I think is important, valuable, or memorable, the writing goes a lot easier. That's why a lot of writers spend a lot of time exploring topics other than writing. For most of us, it's not about words, it's about conveying meaning and sharing life.

And some of the greatest writers didn't have much of a formal education at all. What is more important is experience, how you perceive it, and how you portray it.

I had a positive experience as an English major, but that was at a university determined to make me take many, many courses in things that had nothing to do with English, as well as courses in lovely things like the Anglo-Saxons.

I have never mastered writing, but I have paid taxes since graduation. I suppose that counts for something.

If young Miss G. is going to a "small liberal arts college," there is very little chance that her English department will be dominated by torturers of literature. Those people are all at the big schools (although they will all be retiring soon, too). Fads in literary analysis come and go, but for most people, an English major is a great excuse to become truly literate and get over the narrowness that afflicts a lot of us who think we like to read and write. An English major is largely about trying out new things, hearing what other people think about those things, and deciding whether you agree and how you might explain yourself if you do or don't. That's not torturing literature; that's honing thinking and communication skills and learning to trust your intuition. Creative writing, on the other hand-- Miss G. should definitely steer clear of that field. That's a sub-section of English academia where all the self-absorbed people with the rotten childhoods go to take it out on other would-be writers. Creative writers in general-- not just the students, but the professors, too-- seem to feel that it would demean their work to give any explanation for it. How any education is supposed to take place when everything is personal and spontaneous and sacred is beyond me.

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