Illustration: Melinda Beck

Spin a Yarn, Weave a World

Unraveling the value of my English degree.


A few days after I decided to major in creative writing, I went to my first “What can you do with an English degree?” session. On every chair was a printed list of potential careers. I was expecting to find “lawyer” or “editor” or “journalist.”

The first career on the list, however, was “greeting-card writer.”

This was not terribly comforting. I loved English but had spent the first two years of college determined not to major in it — in denial, I even took a class on coal formation. I had a horrible premonition that declaring a creative writing major in Silicon Valley was a way of formally announcing that I was now dead to the world.

But by junior year, I had given in, and I spent two years reading novels and learning to ignore the sympathetic expressions of employable engineers. By senior year, I had accepted a job offer out of relief rather than interest. It wasn’t a great job, but I figured that unhappiness at work was to be expected. (Wasn’t this a lesson I had learned from literature? Life is pain!)

It didn’t take me long to recognize the value of the degree, and I now see three major benefits.

The first is practical and straightforward: Being a clear and persuasive communicator is helpful no matter what you do.

The second benefit is more nebulous and, strangely, became apparent once I started working in tech. I found that start-ups and the humanities share a surprising connective tissue: Both rely on the power of great stories.

A few years after college, I moved to New York, where I worked at an early-stage company during the week and wrote on weekends. The process of building a company and writing a book are oddly similar. Anyone interested in creating anything — a book, a company, a political party, an empire — starts with the same goal, which is to create something real out of something that doesn’t yet exist. The method? Storytelling.

Great companies are trying to motivate millions of customers to believe that they’re participating in something larger than themselves. This is not always just a sly marketing tactic — often, the vision becomes a reality when enough people believe in the story to make it real. Literature teaches you the process by which fiction becomes truth; entrepreneurship puts that lesson to practical use.

The third and most valuable takeaway I gleaned was that it’s difficult to dislike someone if you know his or her story. The magic of a novel is that you can spend 200 pages inside the brain of a stranger — even one who doesn’t seem very nice — and you can come out understanding that stranger like a friend. Books are a crash course in empathy. And in a world where you can choose the news you read, and where entrenched ideas are less and less mutable, empathy is one of the most important skills we develop.

In the end, the “What can you do with an English degree?” session was more prophetic than I gave it credit for. When my book was published, the first marketing material the British publisher sent me was a beautifully designed quote from the book — on a greeting card. •

CATHERINE LOWELL, ’11, lives in New York. Her first novel, The Madwoman Upstairs, was published earlier this year.