• Ian Kirkpatrick

Don’t Go To College to Learn How to Write

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

It’s summer, it’s likely that any high school or college graduates who are planning to continue education in the fall have already applied to programs they were interested in, but before you drop tens of thousands of dollars on an ““education,”” let me make an argument. Maybe it will help you as it might have helped me a couple of years back.

If you’re interested in getting better at writing, don’t go to college for that. From my experience, the people who typically teach at university don’t know how to write a story, but they’ll pretend they do and sell it to you under the guise of “something deeper.” In most cases, I’ve come to the understanding that “literary” fiction is basically the same as “modern” art, where the only thing that matters is convincing other people you’re a master when you have no skill at all. Oh, you couldn’t learn anatomy and shading? That’s fine. Paint a canvas blue and then bullshit your way to it being some political virtue signal about meaning and freedom.

I’ve started going to a writing group since January of this year. Once a month we have a guest speaker who comes in and talks about some part of the craft. Then two other times that month we have a group critique where we critique the work of 3 other members. The subjects of the seminars are great and I can honestly say I’ve learned more from them then I did in my two years of graduate school for creative writing. Why? Because they actually talk about building a story.

What graduate school did for me was tell me how everything was about symbolism and wordiness. They didn’t tell you how to build momentum in a story or what story structures or climactic arcs are or what different types of tropes are. They didn’t talk about loglines, synopsis, introducing important concepts in the early pages of your manuscript. They talked about hitting the right political points. They talked symbolism in animals or writing poetry as prose. They talked vaguely of going on to teach with your MFA, but not the important parts of creating an enticing story for the general, broad market.

Then you realize… every one of your teachers is a fringe writer. None of them are marketplace successes and none of them really want to be. There’s some level of that “Oh, if you’re mainstream, you’re not cool or doing anything worthy of time. Any noble work is never a bookstore success.”

Then, and this is what finally brought this to light for me: they hate genre writers… like, with a passion. And you know why? Because anyone writing any sort of genre typically has an understanding of story structure, arch, building tension, climax, denouement… and when you talk to writers of literary fiction? Well, everything can be slow, they’ll say it’s all about character, but the characters never go through a climatic change. “It was symbolic.”

I always thought there was something wrong with me for finding literary fiction boring and slow, but it turns out… I was just seeing it for what it was. It doesn’t have a structure and it’s not written to pull you in. Maybe I’m nuts here, but I feel like the person standing in a gallery with other art critics and they all look at the white wall going, “Oh, yes, so deep. So meaning,” and I’m like, “It’s just a freaking white wall. What the feck!”

Benjamin Percy came to my graduate university during one of my residencies. He was the only person who came who wrote anything different from the normal “literary” fiction. He wrote a novel with werewolves and terrorists of sorts (if I remember correctly). I ran into him again recently at SpringCon in Minneapolis and we had a talk. He writes comic books now alongside his novels. Nothing that’s “smiled” upon in the “literary” community, but does much better in the general public. Comic books need a dramatic arch, both for the character and the story. He said he doesn’t get invited to colleges often because of what he writes. It was during this discussion that I realized it’s because when you bring authors in who abide by common storytelling rules, then your students will realize what they’re not learning.

While I was immersed in the graduate program, I thought I was learning. My writing was improving, but not because I was taking much away from the classes. It’s because I was reading and writing and I’m still (hopefully) improving now that I’m out. The classes I took felt useless, empty, often hollow.

And it’s only after seeking information outside of the university bubble that I realize why that was.

They weren’t teaching helpful information to create a book outside of the narcissistic educational sphere. The quality of the book and the tropes you use don’t matter if you tell the right political opinion in your work — which is what they were sure to assign as required reading every term. No. What they were doing, and what many universities are doing now, is collecting government money from young adults who want to learn a craft, grow, and build a future. They don’t care that you put yourself in debt and they don’t care what kind of “knowledge” you walk away with, if any at all. As long as the pockets are lined and they can get their big house and 3-month vacation.


But a good number of them, even at local universities here for different degree programs just let the ball drop. You pay? Good. Now here’s a book. I’m not going to really help you and I’ll grade you positive just so I get good marks as a teacher.

That’s what all this is.

It’s a show to swindle money from young, hopeful people. If you want to learn to write better, I suggest joining a local writing group, find a writing partner or critique group online, read, create a reading list or get help creating a reading list, and work hard. You don’t need college and if your experience goes anything like mine, you’ll walk away feeling ill-prepared and lied to after you see all the things they didn’t teach you despite how much you paid them.

Most universities nowadays are nothing short of a scam shack. Do yourself a favor and skip it if you can.

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© 2019 by Ian Kirkpatrick