What To Do When Your Child Announces Writing as a College Major

My niece recently declared her college major: writing. In an era when liberal arts education must be defended, including against self-doubt, I believe she has made the right choice. She happens to be at the same school I attended, ranked in the top ten if that is any concern, and in the same program from which I graduated in 1988. I would do it again.

Students and their parents are anxious, as they have every right to be, about “gainful employment” upon graduation. They wonder if any course of study that is too “soft” will inevitably lead to the child returning to the parents’ basement. The stereotype of disaffected youth has become the minimum-wage barista.

My niece had a summer internship. Her job was directly related to her field. She had a great opportunity with a national magazine. My career started in a similar manner, in that pre-internet past when people still subscribed to a newspaper. Since then, every role I have had has called upon me as a writer. I am paid for words.

I think about people I knew who went through the Johns Hopkins University “Writing Sems,” which has a prestigious graduate workshop in addition to the undergraduate curriculum in which I was enrolled. I doubt any of them would have been a doctor or software engineer, and that is no slight on them or those professions. Their livelihoods are about language.

Among our teachers was a gaunt, morose fellow named James Boylan. He was quirky, taking seriously the Three Stooges comedy team, and he was most supportive of all of us who aspired to be in print when an editor had to select your manuscript. Later, he transitioned, becoming a less gaunt, less morose Jennifer Finney Boylan. Her memoirs landed her on the Oprah Winfrey show, well before it seemed fashionable.

She has written fiction and non-fiction. I am thrilled to come across her contributions to the New York Times. While I haven’t seen her in decades, I feel a bond from days on campus. I worry that her latest subject is aging, since she cannot be that much older.

The breakout star among recent alumni back then was Louise Erdrich. She had penned two best-selling books seemingly as soon as she finished her degree, collections of stories about Native American life. She returned triumphantly to give a reading to an audience proud to claim her. She had that aura of the acclaimed author, but she also appeared embarrassed by the fame.

My classmates have pursued various occupations. Among them are a teacher for the circus, now retired; a staffer at a non-profit by day who is a musician by night; and a leading avant-garde puppeteer.

Timothy Krieder has had a regular gig as a cartoonist. He has released several books of political satire. For reunion purposes, my greatest achievement is probably being a caricature in the background of a sketch that appeared in the alumni magazine.

Although we did not overlap, I came to know Iris Chang later. She specialized in Asian American history. Through her narrative, Rape of Nanking, the world remembered a terrible historical episode: when the Japanese Army overran the Chinese city during World War II, committing the worst atrocities imaginable. As an American writing in English, she altered Asian historical understanding. Like most only acquainted with her, I had no idea about the mental illness that claimed her life at an early age.

All of these individuals, and me included, would write regardless. You cannot make it as a writer without obsession.

But we were given a bit of encouragement blended within ample constructive criticism. We belonged to a community. We earned a credential. You also cannot make it as a writer without discipline.

So I would not hesitate to say that I could have done no better. I regret that as an undergraduate I was not more diligent, for as they say youth is wasted on the young. Among other things, I could have walked around and explored more. As I approach the mid-century mark, running has become my inspiration for writing.

The problem with promoting writing as an educational priority is everyone does it, even if badly — worse, enthusiastically and badly. They thus assume that there is no need for formal training beyond the point of literacy. Or they figure it can be taken care of here and there in the curriculum.

Yet to write clearly is to think critically. Employers deplore the preparation of today’s students. They are not ready. They cannot express themselves, organized and to persuade, except with images or to announce feelings.

That’s “on us,” the adults who are raising the kids and teaching them, not on our progeny, to use the phrasing they prefer. We have not valued what we should, and the ability to write is only an example.

An engineer who writes well, in addition to being competent in her specialty, is sure to succeed. (And likewise a lawyer comfortable with numbers.)

I have every confidence in my niece. I am convinced that her decision to be a writing major will give her a rare skill.

This piece originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons