Sunday, January 15, 2006


Is a college degree essential in order to become a great writer?

I am almost always asked that question when acquaintances, usually other writers, discover that I have a B.A. in Creative Writing: Fiction. My answer to the question: Absolutely not!

I must confess, even on that last day when I walked to the podium with my fellow classmates and shook hands with the president of the university, I was only an...okay writer. Yes, I was better than when I first pursued the degree, but I wasn’t anywhere near what I’m capable of now. Today, several years later, I can see I’ve become a better writer because I’ve kept practicing, kept writing, kept learning from craft books, and kept learning from my mistakes. I know I’ve got a loooong road ahead of me to become a great writer, but it will come with time. I also know I’ve learned more since I’ve graduated than while I was pursuing my degree.

So, why did I want a degree? Because earning one was my Everest. I wanted to be the first female on my mom’s side of the family to earn a B.A.. It was a personal choice for me—I wanted to make my family proud. And I count myself lucky that I was able to do so while pursuing my passion.

And it HAS always been a passion for me, even when I tried to stifle it by becoming a business major. Once I realized I couldn’t escape this desire to write (no matter how many mind-numbing books on business law and economics I’d studied), I felt a release, a freedom, I’d never felt before then.

This is what I HAVE to do. The thought of doing anything else other than write still makes my stomach turn sour. And I thank heaven every day that I have a loving, understanding, and creative husband who didn’t even blink twice when I told him what I was planning to do with my life. He believes in me and that means more than any B.A., M.F.A., or Ph.D.

Many successful writers have proven over and over that degrees are not essential, not even high school degrees. I hear their stories everyday. And that excites me because I know IT, meaning the mixture of creativity, need, and desire, comes from within us. If they can succeed, then so can I. And so can you. We just need to go out there and DO it.

So, no, you don’t need a degree to write. You need the IT inside you to write more than anything. You need to be willing to work at it until you find your voice. You need to be willing to learn from your mistakes. You need to make sure your skin is tough enough to take the criticism—because as you writers know, not everyone will embrace your stories and characters the way you do. And if you’re lucky like me, you’ll find amazing critique partners (I love you guys!) that will help you through the rough spots in your story, the rough spots in your career as a writer, and the rough spots in your personal life. I don’t believe you need a degree to be a great writer, but I do believe that you’ll need support whether it’s books on craft and career, critique partners, or friends who believe in you.

But first, you must believe in yourself. You CAN do it.


Michele Cwiertny