It’s not the most creative title for a post of this nature, but I wanted to make sure I got my message across loud and clear. A few years ago I graduated from a creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. I want to provide a summary of my experience as a writing student to serve as a warning to anyone who might be considering something similar.
I first thought I might have a talent for writing when I was in elementary school and I received a score of four on the writing test; that was the highest score possible and the only four in the entire school. I was rewarded by the staff with a limousine ride to the restaurant of my choice. I was a young idiot, so naturally I picked one of the few restaurants I actually knew by name: Wendy’s. When you think about it a limo ride to Wendy’s is a nice way of saying you’ll wind up in mediocrity but get there in style.
Cut to several years later, where I make possibly the biggest mistake of my life. Not only do I decide to major in creative writing, but I decide to do it at UNCA without doing sufficient research into their program. I naively thought that there was only one way any half-decent creative writing program would operate; I assumed classes would be divided by genre and I would have the ability to simply focus on the genres that I was passionate about. This is not even close to the way it actually works.
The creative writing major was divided between traditional English/literature classes and a small number of creative writing classes simply called ‘creative writing’. There is no consideration for genre; instead the focus is on movements. What this does in effect is disregard science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, horror, humor, comics, and creative nonfiction in favor of just literary fiction and poetry.
I hate literary fiction. To me it is the epitome of people both pretending they understand the core of humanity and pretending that everyday ennui is somehow the gateway to understanding it. It is the genre of drug addicts and the terminally ill. It is the genre where meaning is derived from feelings of meaninglessness. I digress though.
My passion has always been speculative fiction, which is an umbrella term for fiction addressing the currently impossible. You can imagine my horror when I was forced to read through a million different stories like The Yellow Wallpaper when I only cared for H.G. Wells. There wasn’t a single professor involved with the program that specialized in any kind of genre fiction. Most of the time when I tried to explain myself I found I was talking past them. They would nod politely and tell me how my frame of mind was incorrect. It made my blood boil.
For my final project I thought I could finally branch out on my own and write a novel, only to find that a project that size couldn’t reasonably be graded by a professor with so many other students. I was forced to cut down to a sixty page excerpt of the overall story. The professor assigned to me read it, gave it a fine grade, and never really addressed its contents at all. I don’t believe he knew how.
I spent four years in intellectual hell writing research papers the night before they were due (and sometimes the morning of). My grades varied wildly from one failed class (that I believe I failed because the professor did not care for me) to A’s. I ended up crossing a 3.0 GPA by half a nose hair. Honestly I would have settled for less at that point since I cared so little. At our graduation ceremony, which was idiotically held in the rain even though there was room indoors, something else happened that encapsulated my experience quite well.
The heavy rain was causing the cheap blue gowns to bleed all over everyone’s clothes. The professors, who were protected by a cabana while the students and their grandparents stood out in the courtyard, came up with a quick solution to protect the diplomas from the rain. They put them in garbage bags.
I initially wanted to skip the ceremony because I’m not one for putting on brightly-colored dresses to celebrate an institution that did its best to ignore me, but I had only managed to escape my high school graduation by promising my father I would attend the college one.
I walked up there cold, wet, embarrassed, miserable, angry, and nihilistic about my future. They handed me my diploma in a garbage bag, telling me it was trash. They were right. It’s next to useless for getting a job, which I knew going in, but they managed to take plenty of money while not actually providing knowledge or insight about the subjects that make up the most popular, and in my opinion most important, aspects of creative writing.
I am reminded of our one presentation near the end of our program where we got to read some of our work in front of family and staff. First we had to sit through the guy who just joined the program to force people to read renditions of his strange sexual fantasies. Then we had to sit through the girl who exclusively writes foggy disturbing poetry about fetuses and blood. Then came the guy who thinks he’s the next Jack Kerouac. Then I got to read.
This is going to sound like me tooting my own horn, which it sort of is, but I really want to toot the horn of the genres I write in. I read an excerpt from my book where a robotic doctor connects to a patient’s various biological systems and gives him a rundown of his health. People laughed (which was intended). I believe it was the strongest reaction to any of the pieces read. For a second I had a taste of the appreciation that I hoped would be radiating off the walls when I sat in some of the cozier office classrooms with five or six other students. It’s a shame they don’t shoot for that more often.
while I can’t speak to other college programs, it is safe to say that genre fiction is largely ignored in the academic environment. If you’re interested in pursuing it as a hobby or career, I would simply advise you to read a ton and do research online. You’ll save money, learn more, and be exposed to more varied viewpoints. The internet has its own list of terrible problems, but it doesn’t have the same stick up its ass as every professor in the imagination-free zone that was my campus. (Others will certainly disagree with me as UNCA is regarded as a campus for oddballs, but I’m speaking simply in terms of the creative writing department.)
I hope this short account helps you without discouraging you too much. While I don’t have the career in writing I always dreamed of, I have managed to write two novels, a novella, and a whole basket of short stories since I left. I’m working on two more books and a novella now. You may need money and validation to live, but your work does not. You just need to know that somewhere a stiff sweater-loving college professor is waxing philosophical about the Bronte sisters while genre fiction writers get to fly space ships, program robots, slay dragons, raise the dead, and a trillion other shiny exhilarating things.