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Way of the Word

January 13, 2019

What makes a better writer? I’ve been pondering this question after taking a class on award-winning short stories. The stories we read were all by writers who had advanced degrees in creative writing.  

If the current crop of prize-winning writers are coming out with advanced creative writing degrees, does this mean a certain singularity of outlook and experience? Or perhaps a tendency on the part  of the academics judging these writers to lean toward their own?  I was an English major in college, have a master’s degree, although it’s in adult education, read extensively, and most of my professional experience is as a writer or editor. Surely all this counts too.

I’ve always subscribed to the old theory that to be a good writer, one needs to expand his or her experience of the world and of people and, of course, to read extensively and deeply.  If I had stayed in Columbia, MD, which probably has the highest percentage of people with doctorate degrees in the world, I would have found myself in the track:  Good job leading to a good career leading to acquiring advanced degrees  leading to better jobs, more money, more everything.

I got to the good job part (managing editor of an agency magazine), and then derailed.  I quit my job, sold the house, bought a boat and lived on it for three years.  I fished, crabbed, picked berries on shore, bought from thrift shops, scavenged aluminum cans to recycle, waitressed, cleaned apartments, worked temp jobs and spent one boring week as a security guard.  Then I settled in Fort Lauderdale  and got a real job again in a town where part of your pay is in sunshine. I learned to live upon a little which gave me flexibility and the nerve to move back to Maryland without a job while sending my daughter off to college.  Taking these directions in my life enriched it in many, many satisfying ways and underlines the fact that I am never bored. If I had stayed on track, I would feel the bone-deep regret of not having lived my dreams.  
Even so, sometimes I wonder if my life was misspent. Should I have studied for a master’s degree in creative writing? The stories selected for the “year’s best” were thoughtful, layered, and worthy of reflection.

As I finish my seventh novel, I still ponder the question of what makes a better writer. My best guess is that it’s like the question of nature versus nurture. Both are strong influences.  A good writer needs a natural feel for words, refined and enhanced by education and experience. But to succeed as a writer, so much more is required. Imagination. Perseverance. Ability to withstand criticism and rejection.  The list goes on.

How helpful would a master’s degree in creative writing be?  What is your opinion?


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