I paid $40,000 for a master’s degree in writing for children and young adults.
Forty grand for a low-residency program on the south shore of Lake Tahoe. Twice a year for two years, I spent eight days immersed in school, then went home and read (and read and read) and wrote. Turned in packets. Got feedback.
I wrote The Astonishing Maybe during my second semester. I worked with mentors that were paid to give me their attention.
I’ll probably be paying back my cumulative $100,000 or so in student loans until I’m dead.
I also have the peace of mind of knowing that if what I’m doing now, this dream of teaching and writing the way I want to, dries up I can teach high school. Or maybe college.
Was it worth it? I think that’s the wrong question.
Some of that $100,000 — especially the part that came early on — right or wrong, was my defense against homelessness. That’s what I think about when I make my student loan payments now.
I take a breath and I’m grateful that the money was there when I needed it most. And I’m grateful that later those loans let me just focus on learning how to be a writer, instead of constantly struggling to learn in the cracks between being a mom and working fulltime.
But I am also incredibly grateful that I can make those payments now, even if they suck and will probably keep me from ever owning a home.
Did you know that it can be really hard to get a mortgage if you have a moderate income and a heavy load of student debt?
If you’re thinking about going into debt to learn how to be a writer, you should definitely ask yourself if you’re really okay with what it will mean to have to pay those loans back later.
I don’t think you need me to tell you that, though.
I think a better question is: did I need to spend that money, to become a writer?
When I started my MFA program, I was already published. I sold my next book as my third semester started.
I sold my first book during my first semester of studying creative writing as an undergraduate.
(BTW, if I could go back and change one thing, it would be this: I wouldn’t talk about my books at school. At all. That’s a different story, though. Maybe I’ll tell it later.)
I was already a professional writer by the time I started my education, is my point. So I guess that’s the answer.
No. You don’t have to spend the money on a traditional university education if you want to be a writer. But you already knew that, too, I think.
So, it leads to another question.
Mabye this is the right question: What exactly did I want out of my expensive education?
My dad always says education is always worth it.
He got upset with me recently when I told him that I thought my oldest daughter could probably start looking for a non-entry-level job in her field when she finishes graduate school.
Don’t convince her not to continue her education, he said.
But she’ll have a graduate degree, I said.
She could get a doctorate, if she wanted to. Or go to law school. Don’t talk her out of it.
I was raised by a man who venerates education and who has never had as much as he wanted. He believes that the most important thing you learn in college is how to learn.
And I believe that, too. I spent $100,000 of borrowed money to learn how to learn. And for that peace of mind I talked about earlier. I wanted to be able to teach in a classroom, if I ever have to.
I’ll never have to take a shitty minimum wage job again and that matters a lot to me. I am personally driven by a sometimes fairly desperate desire to not fall back into poverty.
I was already a writer. I wanted to be a better writer and the framework and the structure helped. But, what I really wanted was a degree that would let me get a better day job, if I ever have to.
Here’s what I paid $40,000 to learn in graduate school.
I’ve become sort of obsessed with the idea of creating an atmosphere of intense, intentional learning outside of a university setting.
These are the building blocks:
- Read a lot.
- Write a lot.
- Seek out mentors.
- Just as important: seek out opportunities to be a mentor.
- Teach what you know.
- Be open to the idea that learning is as important as talent or inspiration.
- Be flexible enough to know that you don’t know everything.
- Find a way to be excited by the things you don’t know.
- Let curiosity drive you.
I hate the question of whether or not the cost of my education was worth it. Maybe because I have to pay the money back, regardless. Maybe because I was raised by a man who taught me not to talk other people out of going to college.
Maybe because it really is the wrong question.
If you want to be a writer, you need to learn how to learn — if you’ve forgotten, which happens a lot to adults.
You can do that outside of an expensive, traditional program. Especially if you don’t care as much as I did about having a degree.
Start with books.
These are my favorites: Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. Stephen King’s On Writing. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. The Creative Habit by Twila Tharp. Story Genius by Lisa Cron. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.
Don’t devour them. Read them slowly. Do the work.
Also, read widely. And deeply, too. In your genre. Outside your genre. Read children’s books and trashy romance novels and the classics. Reread your favorite books. Pay attention to how words are put together into sentences that form stories.
Ray Bradbury advised an essay, a short story, and a poem every day and I think that’s a fantastic idea, from a man who only had a high school diploma and still understood the need to learn forever.
And write every day. I mean it. Every day. It doesn’t have to be hours, although I bet some days, when the work is flowing out of you, it will be. Carry a notebook with you or download an app on your phone (or whatever non-analog people do.)
Writing doesn’t have to be about sitting your ass in a chair and creating something important. Keep a log of your day. Write down words that intrigue you, bits of conversation you overhear, describe what you see out of your window.
Challenge yourself to experiment. Write essays and post them on Facebook or here on Medium or on a blog almost no one visits. Let bits and pieces connect and collide and become short stories or maybe novels. Write poems. Write letters.
Whatever. Just write. Practice putting words together.
Find a mentor. Mentor someone else. A lot of that is just becoming part of a community of writers. Online or in person. Probably both.
Spend a little money, if you can. Take a class. Hire an editor to look at one of your stories and tell you what you need to do to get better. Signup for a workshop. Go to a conference.
Practice being okay with not being good enough yet. There’s always going to be something you’re not good enough at, yet. A flexible mind is so important.
And if you want to, go to school. But not because you think you have to if you want to be a writer.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s represented by Elizabeth Bennett at Transatlantic Literary Agency and her most recent book is The Astonishing Maybe. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the original Ninja Writer.
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