As many of you are aware already, I am opening up the floor to blog readers for them to ask me questions for which they would like to see me blog answers. Feel free to leave any questions of your own in the comments below, and I will add them to my list.
Do keep in mind that I do not presume to call myself an expert in any given field. I know a thing or two and have picked up another thing or three. So basically you're reading my opinions on these various topics, so take those opinions for what they are worth.
Now, on to today's post, which was inspired by this reader's request: "I would like to hear about how your journey as an author was influenced by becoming an English major."
Like any good former English major, I know to begin a report with a thesis statement and go on from there to elaborate. So this is my thesis statement on this particular topic--My experience as an English Literature major had both everything and nothing to do with my journey as a novelist.
(Do note: I'm saying English Literature major, not just English major. There is a difference. I studied English Lit. specifically.)
I went into my English Literature degree with a slightly different mindset from that of my peers. In fact I do not know of a single other English Lit. student in any of the three colleges/universities I attended who shared it. Certainly not to the same level intensity. You see, I went into this degree with the mindset of becoming a novelist. This goal was my entire focus throughout my years of study; it influenced not only my approach to literature classes but also my approach to every other class I took.
As a novelist (and as a person!) I was relatively inexperienced when I set off to school. I had written a handful of manuscripts, which varied in their degrees of badness. I wasn't arrogant enough to think they were any better than they were. But I also knew what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to write. And I knew that a good writer is always taking in every experience, every educational opportunity . . . every moment. A good writer takes it all in, stores it all up, and lets it ruminate for years. Anything can become useful material down the road, even appallingly boring studies in macro-economics or algebra. That's not to say that everything will become useful; simply that everything can.
But the English literature major provides the most opportunity for literary growth. During hours of lectures and class reading and discussion, a student is thrown head-first into the great works which have survived throughout the ages. These are the authors who made it, not simply the popular authors of their day, no indeed! Many of them would have been considered complete washouts by their peers and publishers. But these are the authors who found something far deeper than popularity--they discovered universality. They discovered what it means to write lasting material that sticks in the minds of readers year after year after year. They discovered how to layer their work, how to open up and pour out their souls through the written word.
Much of their work is crude. Much of their work is deadly dull. Much of their work is obscure and difficult to ponder.
But it is all work that has lasted.
I wanted to learn about that lasting quality. I wanted to learn about universals and archetypes and what brings readers back for more, not just today but tomorrow, and next year, and next decade.
This is in no way to imply that I discovered the secret well of all literary insight. That I figured it all out, that I grasped the whole of the truth. This is in no way to imply that I think my work has (yet) achieved that same mark of timelessness.
My point is simply this: When I studied English literature, I studied the authors themselves. I learned what they did and much of how they did it. I learned that the truly lasting authors were those who were not afraid to be vulnerable. They put themselves into their work. Their narrative voices, their archetypal themes, their character depictions . . . ultimately, all of these things reflected the authors who wrote them.
I could not have become a novelist if I had not learned this truth. If I had not learned about authorial vulnerability. If I had not learned that having something to say in a work of fiction doesn't mean preaching a moral; having something to say in fiction means being real on the page.
My English literature studies were vital to my growth and development as a novelist. That being said, those same studies had absolutely nothing to do with me becoming a professional author. No degree can ever make that happen! That road took practice and study and hard work and networking. It continues to take practice and study and hard work and networking, not to mention a constant stream of production. There isn't a degree that covers all the work that I or any of the professional novelists of my acquaintance do.
But let me tell you, neither is there a degree that could have taught me more of what I truly needed to know. I would not trade those years of English literature study for crowns or kingdoms.