Should you study creative writing?
I see this question asked all the time – on social media, at panel discussions, during writing workshops, and in any place would-be writers tend to congregate. It’s asked by young people and old people alike, by people with degrees and people who have just graduated from high school and people who have never graduated from anything.
What they’re really asking is: will studying creative writing be ‘worth it’?
In some ways, it’s an easy question to answer. There is undeniable value in studying creative writing. I’m not even going to engage here with the non-question of ‘can writing be taught’, because of course it can – you can learn to write just like you can learn to paint or play the piano or bake a cake or build a house. Studying creative writing will help you learn the mechanics of writing; only you can teach yourself how to have something to say.
As well as skills, though, creative writing courses give budding writers the space, freedom and permission to write. They bring camaraderie and community; they can help build both contacts and confidence. The impetus of regular deadlines alongside the grounding of constant feedback are gifts which students may only appreciate in retrospect, but they are real and valuable.
Studying creative writing will help you learn the mechanics of writing; only you can teach yourself how to have something to say.
I loved my creative writing degree. It helped me to take myself seriously as a writer, to value feedback (even the feedback I disagreed with), and to experiment with genres and forms and ideas that I might otherwise have never encountered. This isn’t to say, however, that there weren’t downsides to the experience – chief among them $60,000 worth of HECS debt that will shadow me for the rest of my working life.
In this way, the question ‘should you study creative writing’ really becomes one about art and money, and the way that they intersect in a generally non-complementary manner. The two seem to me a bit like the colours orange and green, sitting there awkwardly adjacent on the colour wheel. Occasionally, like citrus fruit on a tree or the feathers on a parrot, the colours just work together, almost like magic, and you wonder how you ever thought the combination could be anything but harmonious.
But most of the time when you see orange and green together it’s more like when, as a twelve-year-old, I paired a tangerine-coloured T-shirt with my favourite lime-green board shorts. Either piece of the ensemble could perhaps have been a success on its own (hey, it was the nineties) but mixed together the two clashed in myriad painful and cringeworthy ways.
All of this is to say that it is possible to combine art and money in ways that mean, for some people, studying creative writing can be simultaneously artistically and financially ‘worth it’. But for most of us, it won’t be.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study creative writing. Like with any creative pursuit, the rewards that come from exercising the right side of your brain are less tangible, but no less real than the numbers in your bank account. But if what you’re really asking is whether studying creative writing will leave you both creatively and financially richer, whether it will guarantee you a future as a writer in the same way that another kind of vocational degree might qualify you for a career as a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer, then the answer is most likely no.
If you’re the kind of person who is wondering whether you should study creative writing, this might be hard to hear. But it’s probably better to find this out now than two years into a $10,000-per-semester postgraduate degree.
Studying creative writing can be simultaneously artistically and financially ‘worth it’. But for most of us, it won’t be.
Most writers in Australia don’t live off their writing alone. The Australia Council’s latest Making Art Work report found that only 27 per cent of Australian writers spend 100 per cent of their working time on their creative practice. The average annual income for Australian writers is $43,500, of which less than half ($19,900) is derived from writing. What’s more, 62 per cent of writers earn less than $10,000 a year from their creative practice, despite reporting spending 61 per cent of their working hours writing.
These figures are skewed by outliers, too. The median (middle point) income for writers – rather than the mean (average) – from their creative practice is actually only $4500 per year, while the median total income is $35,000, just under the minimum wage.
Most writers’ income is made up from a hodgepodge of sources, only some of which are vaguely related to writing. According to the Making Art Work report, a whopping 75 per cent of writers teach in some capacity, while 26 per cent receive pay as a member of arts board or assessment panel, 20 per cent work as editors, 15 per cent are employed as arts administrators and 14 per cent work assisting other artists.
An average of 26 per cent of writers’ working time is spent on non-arts-related work, and 64 per cent of writers report wanting to spend more time on their creative work than they currently do. Across all art forms, the most important factor (64 per cent) preventing artists from spending more time on their creative work is ‘insufficient income from the arts/need to earn more income elsewhere’.
It’s true, too, that you absolutely do not need a creative writing degree to be a successful writer. Many excellent writers have never set foot inside a tertiary classroom, let alone a creative writing workshop.
Many excellent writers have never set foot inside a tertiary classroom, let alone a creative writing workshop.
None of this will dissuade you, of course, if you really do want to study creative writing; you will believe – as all of us do, at some point – that you will be an outlier. As author Frank Moorhouse wrote in Meanjin, ‘Most writers set out to be Shakespeare – or Rowling – and then as our books are published…we find where we fall within the ever-changing, multifaceted branches of literary reputation and income.’ It’s impossible, at the beginning of your career, to know exactly where you will fall on this scale.
Having a financially stable secondary career outside the writing and publishing world is probably the easiest way to guarantee you’ll always be able to pay your rent – with presumably less student debt thrown into the bargain. The phrase ‘don’t quit your day job’ has never been truer.
And yet it’s not necessarily wrong to begin your writing career with high hopes. There’s something to be said for the adage of shooting for the moon only to land among the stars – much can be achieved merely through determination and perseverance.
But shooting for the moon can be costly, beyond immediate course fees, in ways that will likely never balance the abacus of economic rationalism. When asking whether you should study creative writing, the real question remains: how much are you willing to pay?