Julie Sondra on Education for Writers

Hey everybody, it’s Julie. As you can see I
cut my hair! Here’s my new hairdo! And I’m going to talk to you a little bit
today about education. One of the letters that I have received
several times from people who wanna be writers is–they say “What should I do as far as my education?
Should I go to school and major in English? Should I major in creative writing, should I major in
journalism? What kind of courses do I need to take to qualify for this, that, and the other?” And first of all, I’ll tell you a little bit about
my experience. I did not major in English. I did not
major in any kind of writing. I actually have never taken a
college class of any kind in English, because in high school I took AP
English and I got college credits for that, for
getting a 5 on the exam so I just actually didn’t take a single
English course in college. I majored in music, and I did that
for about a year and a half before I switched to elementary education. And I
graduated with an elementary education degree. Of course I had to do some writing for
those courses and there were certain word requirements for how many
words you have to write in these classes, but they really didn’t come with any writing instruction, and the scoring and the grading just really
wasn’t particularly stringent in those courses. It was–you
had to write passably and understandably, but sometimes they didn’t even mark you
down for misspellings, so it wasn’t what I would call a
writing-related education. Part of the reason that I didn’t go into any kind of English major
after deciding that music wasn’t for me is
that I learned while majoring in music that it’s a very subjective type of field, and . . . I think that I discovered that I liked
singing as a hobby but not so much as a possible career. And I didn’t like making it work. I
didn’t like the way that it didn’t– it stopped being fun and I was really
afraid that the same thing would happen for me
if I tried to major in something writing- related. I think there are plenty of
people who can get through school –any kind of English major or writing-related major without ending up feeling like
that– it may be different for different
people, of course, but for me I was just I thought that that was too much of a risk
for me, so I decided not to do it and I got a
degree in something else. I would say that my “education” for writing has been pretty
much entirely because I’m a reader. I’ve learned just about
everything I know about how to write from reading, and
also from showing my work to other people and
responding to their criticism by getting better. So that’s really all I’ve had to do up to this point to learn how to
write in such a way that it was of high enough quality I guess to be
picked up by publishing industry professionals and to
get a book published, et cetera. So I think that some people who might need more writing
instruction, more practice, more structured environments may be able to flourish in an environment like a college
education in a writing field, but that just wasn’t me, and I just wanna let you know that I’m also
therefore proof that you don’t HAVE to in order to succeed. Also some people seem to think that
being able to put those degrees and those accreditations
and maybe awards and whatnot on their
query letters for their–for agents and for
publishers is somehow going to help them get a
shortcut, but actually the people that I know
who work in those fields say it that it’s surprising how many
people have a degree in a writing-related field who are among the worst writers! Most of the ones who
have those degrees and are fantastic don’t even happen to
mention it, so I don’t think that’s a rule, but it’s
awfully interesting that so many people seem to think that
you have to prove that you’re qualified by saying “I have this degree!” and it actually does not matter. It is not what they’re looking for. What
they’re looking for is a decent pitch and good writing. That’s it. So however you want
to pursue that, is what’s going to work for you. Also I should let you know that on this subject of careers, I work part-time in a secretarial
position, and that’s where–that’s my day job,
that’s where most of my cash comes from, and I think a lot of people think, “Oh I need to get into a writing-
related field, I need to get a writing career, even if it’s not the type of writing I wanna do for my dream job, I just need to get into
writing!” I think that that–thinking like that is
also a mistake. It’s different that’s something that you
feel interested in and that’s what you want to pursue, but the idea that you have to get a
professional writing job of some kind in order to progress in
the world is not true. I think we have a hangup as a culture on needing to make money doing what you
love, and the idea that maybe if you have a writing career at least
you’re making money from writing somehow in journalism or you’re writing on a subject that you
wouldn’t have chosen, or taking assignments from others, not exactly your preferred subject
matter, but at least you’re writing! Well, you know, that’s great if you feel
satisfied by that but in my experience doing those things professionally tends to kinda suck the desire out of you to do them in your free time as well, and
because we have this obsession with wanting to make
money doing the thing that we love and wanting to derive fulfillment from whatever also keeps a
roof over our head– I think there’s this pressure to try to
become a professional writer in any way that you possibly can, but for me, getting a job that functions as a support position has been really the best thing that ever happened
to my writing career, because what happens for me is that I
get to go to work, and I get to provide support for other people, and I don’t have to invest a lot of my
creativity or my time or my stress into the
workplace. I get to leave work at work, and come home and do what I consider
to be my life’s work, and furthermore, people at the office are not
expecting me to derive a lot of fulfillment from being a
secretary, making the coffee, making the copies,
and doing a little bit of copyediting and whatnot for the engineers I work
for. So, that has been–that’s been the best
thing for me is just having something to keep my bills paid, and then the rest of my time is mine. And I don’t have to invest a whole lot of my brain space to what makes my money. In our society we tend to think that those
failing to make your money from the thing that you love the most is somehow also a failure of life, but
I don’t think that that’s true at all. Of course I would love it if in the future all I had to do was
write, and I was secure and making enough money to be able to not only pay my bills but
be able to get decent health insurance and whatnot, be able to look down the road and not be– not be worried about making ends meet, but it’s okay with me if that doesn’t
happen because I’m able to do what I love now, and have
been mildly successful so far, so I’m hoping
there’s more in the future, but we’ll see! The truth of the matter is doing what
you love is what life is about. And unfortunately not all big dreams
are equally likely to be lucrative, so we just have to accept
that sometimes we love something that isn’t necessarily all that likely
to pay off. But if you leave enough room in your life to be
able to chase those dreams while still remaining secure with a roof over your head and
food on your table, then you’re doing pretty good and you
shouldn’t feel any shame about that. So good luck to anybody who’s at the beginning point trying to
prepare for getting into a writing career, and let me know if you have a question
or you wanna ask something specific that I didn’t go over! Thanks for listening!

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