When I tell people I’m a student of creative writing, I’m often met with skepticism. People, especially seniors, often ask me how I intend to find a successful career with a creative writing degree. My instinct is to answer this question in a way that will put these people in their place. However, the truth is, I don’t have a better answer than “I don’t know, maybe teach.” They score a point. There are plenty of bright graduates with degrees like mine who can’t find meaningful work. Meanwhile, their counterparts in fields like IT are being offered well-paying jobs even before they graduate from college. Now that I’m two years away from graduating, stories like these are starting to hit a little too close to home.
I also feel embarrassed by my major among my peers. There is a stereotype that “right-brain” activities, such as writing, are easier and more fun than “left-brain” activities. While those around me spend their days on problem sets, labs, and four hours of daily instrument practice, I sit at my computer and make things up. Of course, my friends who major in STEM fields have been nothing but supportive of the path I have chosen. They treat my work seriously and recognize the effort I put into it. Nevertheless, I always joke about how easy my classes are compared to theirs when we study together. These jokes are funny – I’m a student of creative writing, after all – but they also speak to the feeling of inadequacy that can sometimes overwhelm me.
My experience speaks to a larger problem. Our culture values certain disciplines over others. I will never forget the day my middle school science teacher sat in front of our class and told us not to become writers. He argued that those in STEM contribute more directly to the welfare of society than those in the arts and earn money doing so. STEM fields are more respected because of their economic potential. Educational institutions follow the priorities of the economy as a whole and produce students and workers who will be the most economically successful, leading to more funding, more alumni donations, etc. Meanwhile, many high schools and colleges have become home to notoriously underfunded arts programs. This sends the message to students that our marketability is more important than our individual strengths. No wonder I’m embarrassed.
Despite all of this, I’m proud to be a creative writing major. Language is one of the most fundamental elements of the world in which we live. It’s hard to go anywhere or do anything without engaging with the language, whether in the form of street signs, text messages, or opinion columns. My Creative Writing specialization is a chance for me to focus on honing my skills in this fundamental yet essential discipline. I try to keep in mind how serious words can be and take my studies as seriously as if I were studying computer science or violin performance. Besides that, that’s what I like to do. Nothing else gives me the satisfaction of putting words on a page and rearranging them until they make sense. That should be reason enough to study it.
Oberlin is one of the few colleges to offer an undergraduate creative writing major. I’m lucky to be at a school that values discipline enough to create a separate department. Oberlin’s creative writing teachers are amazing, and every class I’ve taken so far has opened doors for me to things I never thought possible. However, the program remains insufficient in some areas. In March, Aniella Day wrote an Opinion piece for the Review which highlights some of the department’s limitations, particularly the challenges of securing places in high-demand classes and applying for the major. It’s a sad truth that there aren’t enough creative writing professors to keep up with the demand for courses, and the department has to steer people away from the major so it doesn’t cave in under its own weight. The obvious solution would be for the College to hire more faculty so that the creative writing department can make room for anyone who is interested. But since most departments on campus are under-resourced, it doesn’t look like the College will be pouring money into the creative writing program anytime soon.
If it were up to me, creative writing would be a more commonly available and respected degree program at undergraduate institutions. I sincerely believe that the world would be a better place if students had the opportunity to focus on articulating ideas and communicating with others. However, that’s far too idealistic for my only solution to be, “We need more creative writing programs.” At this point, I think it would take a huge cultural shift for that to happen. For now, the most important thing is that those of us who study creative writing, and the humanities in general, recognize our value. In a world that so often makes us self-conscious about what we do, we need to remind ourselves and others that our contributions are meaningful. If we continue to assert ourselves, perhaps there will be hope for the next generation of writers and artists.