“There is no way to become qualified in this profession. We’re on our own.” (Gaughan, par. 15)
I remember a story that my brother told me once about one of his trips to Mexico. He’s always been interested in art and he told me how the Mexican government funds (or at least, did at the time) dancers and other artists to go around the country and show their art. I was intrigued that a country would see artistic endeavors as a profession and would actually have a program allowing them to do what they loved while getting paid for it.
Alas, this is far from the case for America. Nothing shows this more than an article I recently read by author Evie Gaghan titled “Get a Real Job!”. The title is actually an irony rather than an order because it is a commentary about an offhand tweet that was written by a bestselling author as advice to a novice. When the novice asked Outlander series bestselling author Diana Gabaldon, Gabaldon responded with the tweet, “‘English Major = Want Fries With That? Pick something that will give you enough money to write what you want.’” (as quoted in Gaughan, par. 1).
The comment, at first glance, looks quite snippy and coarse and quite discouraging to a new author. At least, that’s how I saw it and I think Gaughan did too. But there is a lot more that lies underneath it, as Gaughan points out.
Majoring in English does not mean the only job you’ll be qualified for is flipping burgers at McDonald’s. This is a myth and a rather outdated one. An English degree may not give you direct hands-on skills that lets you tick off points in a job description, but it gives you more intangible job skills, like the ability to think and analyze, to comprehend quickly what you’re reading, and, most importantly the kind of written communication skills that are becoming almost extinct nowadays but that are essential for the workplace. As a former English composition professor, I cannot count how many times students began my courses with a text-messaging sense of what written communication is and learned by the end of it that professional writing in the workplace means being able to convey your ideas in writing in as clear and unambiguously as possible.
Gabaldon’s response is, of course, not surprising. Writing has never been high on the list of lucrative professions. As Gaughan points out, “when we [tell] our parents we [want] to be writers, the response [is] the same. There’s no money in writing” (par. 4). I remember vividly the argument I had with my father when I was applying to colleges. He had a habit of sitting down with all of us and examining the college catalogues and consulting (and sometimes trying to talk us into) us about what we would major in. His concerns were, as with most parents, that our degree would lead to something lucrative and practical. He knew about my love of books and my dreams of becoming a writer. But he wanted me to major in Social Work instead of English, arguing that I had great people skills and a caring heart and it would prove to be a good career move. I argued with him that my English degree would take me where I wanted to go. I eventually won and got my degree in English. Much later, my father and I were having a discussion about possibly going on to a PhD program in English and he admitted that my decision to get an English degree had been the right one.
Why did he change his mind? Because a few years before, he was invited to teach some junior and senior courses in chemical engineering in a university in Texas. His goal was to use his thirty-plus years experience in the field to prepare his students who were about to go out into the workplace for what would lie ahead. And he was appalled at the poor level of reading and writing skills these students had as they submitted reports and papers to him. He knew that they would need to have strong skills for their work in the chemical engineering field or they wouldn’t make the grade.
For writers, an English degree gives them the kind of literary background they really need to become good writers. It exposes them to the literary canon of English and other literatures. All writers benefit from knowing the history of literature, even those that are not in their genre. For example, my genre is psychological fiction and I was first introduced to Henry James, one of the godfathers of the genre, in my university studies. English studies also force writers to analyze what they are reading, picking apart a story to examine the different intentions and meanings underlying the plot, characters, setting, timeframe, etc. English students learn about literary devices, some of which aren’t only useful in reading fiction but also writing it. For example, I wrote about two devices that I learned about during my studies and that I use in my own fiction: symbolism and personification.
Gabaldon alludes to the myth that an English degree only qualifying you for a McDonald’s kind of job and this is just no longer true. In Gaughan’s words, “[m]any graduates go on to work in the arts, administration, journalism, libraries, publishing and other areas of business that value critical thinking, copy-editing and communication skills” (par. 7). Several months ago, I wrote a guest blog post for author Kelly Schweizer’s blog, This Northern Gal about life after university, where I wrote about how my English degree led me into the satisfying career of teaching and tutoring.
The idea that a writer needs money to write what he or she wants borders on the absurd. If you are a writer who is determined to write, you will write what you want, even if you have to hold a paying job to do it. Gaughan points out that there is something a little offensive even about the implications behind this comment, as “[Gabaldon is] drawing the conclusion that someone with money can write what they want and someone on minimum wage can’t” (par. 13). It also implies that a substantial number of writers do not write what they want but only write what will earn them money. There is no denying that there are writers (probably too many) who follow the trends mainly because they believe it is the surest way to bestsellerdom. But I agree with Gaughan in her assertion that “[n]obody knows or understands what it is that makes a book a bestseller, but we all follow our own path to try and find out” (Gaughan, par. 20).
I don’t believe that Gabaldon had any intention of being cruel or flippant in her response to the novice writer. But I do think we should be encouraging new writers, not discouraging them. As Gaughan says, “‘[c]oming out’ as an aspiring writer is hard enough without established authors putting more obstacles in the way” (Gaughan, par. 5).
Gaughan, Evie. “Get a Real Job!”. Women Writers, Women[‘s] Books. Women writers, Women’s Books. 16 March 2017. Web. 22 March 2017.