Two things inspired this week’s post. First, my daughter has been accepted to a private art college here in Seattle, and we’re all very excited. Now we’re off, like all parents of college-bound students who are not independently wealthy (and no, I am not independently wealthy), scrounging around for scholarships, grants, charity, loose change, empty pop bottles . . . anything that will help pay for what, at the end of four years, may total very nearly $200,000.
The second thing is that I’m getting ready to do a seminar, based on The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, at Emerald City Comicon on March 30. The last time I did this event was at WonderCon in San Francisco last year, and it got a great response. The whole college thing made me think of a question from an aspiring SF/F author at WonderCon, paraphrased: “Do I need to go to college?” I might just get that question again in a couple weeks.
What was my answer?
No, but you should.
There are certain occupations that require post-high school, or even graduate degrees. You can not practice law without first graduating from law school then passing the bar exam, and you can’t get into law school without first getting some kind of undergraduate degree. Doctors have to go through an even longer, costlier, and more grueling process of education and licensing before they can hang out their shingles. Teachers need a degree, then have to pass a battery of tests in order to gain certification before they can teach in public schools. There are all sorts of other jobs you need to have some kind of license or certification for, or simply can not make it through the first stage of the hiring process without a degree. When I was at Wizards of the Coast and we were in need of a new editor, I was asked by the human resources department if I wanted to require a college degree and I said, “Of course I do.” Resumes without at least a bachelor’s degree never got to me. They were rejected out of hand by the HR rep.
But there is no governing body, like the various state bar associations, that license authors. There are organizations like the Writer’s Guild and the SFWA, but the former is a union and the latter is sort of more like a club. You’ll have very little luck writing for movies or TV without being a member of the Writer’s Guild, but for authors of SF and fantasy fiction, membership in the SFWA is entirely optional. I know as many members as non-members. As an editor I never even bothered to ask if prospective authors were a member of the SFWA. It didn’t matter to me at all, one way or the other.
I haven’t done any sort of survey or anything, but I have no doubt that there are many non-college graduates among the ranks of SF and fantasy authors, and among the ranks of authors in general. I’ve never heard of a publisher asking for a resume for fiction work. Non-fiction is a horse of a different color, often requiring a serious look at your credentials in order to present you as a subject-matter expert, but even then, I doubt there’s some sort of formal educational requirement.
What that means is that no, you simply do not have to have a college degree to write SF and fantasy. You can learn from books like mine, or even be “self-taught.” Pick it up on your own by trial and error.
But I can’t just leave it at that. I’m too much a supporter of education. It’s something I believe very, very strongly in.
I have a bachelor of arts degree in cinema and photography from Southern Illinois University. At least while I was attending in the early 1980s, SIU had a national reputation as a party school, even ranked in a Playboy magazine article. How proud we were. Okay, it wasn’t Harvard, but I got a decent education there. I could get in with my crappy high school grades. It had a film program. My parents could afford it. In my humble opinion, those are three perfectly acceptable criteria on which to base that decision.
Among my “author friends,” there is a librarian (you need a degree for that), a lawyer (you need two degrees for that), more than one teacher, and a whole list of people doing other jobs that may not have strict licensing requirements but that you must have a degree to get. And that’s where the college degree stops being optional for an author, and turns into something that is, more and more, essential to a person.
The job market sucks, and has sucked for a long time. If you have a high school diploma only, it sucks even worse. If you don’t even have a high school diploma, good luck. If you have a degree in software engineering and are flexible about where you want to live, the job market has almost never been better, but otherwise it is true, college graduates are also having trouble finding work in the Great Depression II. But why make an already difficult situation all but impossible?
There are a few statistical outliers like Brett Easton Ellis or Christopher Paolini—authors who got published and sold a ton of books before they were confronted with the necessity to get a “day job.” That’s two that I can think of, which means that quite possibly everyone else had to do something for a living before that huge best seller came along. And most authors still maintain that “day job” while they navigate the treacherous, and not terribly lucrative seas of the so-called “midlist.”
Now, I’m not advising that you have what my father used to call a “fallback plan.” If this is what you were born to do, then you have to keep fighting tooth and nail to do it, but having something else that you love, that you can do not instead of writing but in addition to writing, well, you may just be able to keep yourself in luxury items like housing, food, electricity, water . . . that kid of crazy stuff.
Writing may be your principal passion, but surely it isn’t your only interest. And even if it is, can you use that passion and skill to get a steady pay check? Can you write for a video game studio? Can you add some technical writing courses to your college schedule and write . . . I don’t know, medical or software documentation?
And in the end, college makes you smarter, and smarter is always better than dumber, no matter what.