I knew that I wanted to study Creative Writing at university when I was twelve years old. From that point forward, I focused everything on building towards this very specific, seemingly achievable goal. Looking back on it, I can’t help but feel like my trajectory as a person must have been the inverse of most people. I had this clarity of purpose that lasted ten years, and it was only after I graduated that I didn’t know what to do with myself. Whereas most people around me didn’t seem to know what to do with their lives in their teenage years but found their way sometime in their twenties, either at university, in the world of work, or through a meaningful experience of some kind. In the years after my degree, I felt like I’d swapped places with many people: I’d always been the guy with the plan, and now I had no clarity whatsoever.
It’s tough for young people in today’s world to take stock of their abilities and pigeonhole themselves into a career. Time is precious. To snag a career job you need experience and qualifications to stand out. Those things take time, and the education system doesn’t do a good job of helping young folks decide which path to commit to. I was repeatedly told throughout my teens that I was lucky I knew what it was I wanted to do. Having clarity meant you were less likely to waste time deciding what to do or jumping into something you would either regret or was ill-suited to your skillset.
The problem- for me at least- was that my grand plan didn’t extend beyond getting that Creative Writing degree. In fact, it wasn’t even about getting the degree- it was simply about studying Creative Writing. If I’d had it my way, I would have just kept studying it indefinitely. I didn’t think about the degree in terms of its worth or its viability. My mind just didn’t work like that. I simply wanted to do what I enjoyed for as long as I could. Creative Writing is an art, not a vocation or a trade. And while I don’t regret getting a degree in it, I’ve often tried to weigh up the worth of that degree.
If the question is whether undertaking a degree will make you a better writer, then obviously the answer is yes. There’s no assurance it will make you a great writer, or even a good writer, but it will improve your ability. At Winchester I was exposed to all kinds of new ideas about language and creativity. We took part in peer review exercises or workshops, which, for most of us, were the first time we had really had our work scrutinized and dissected by other writers. I came to think about how my writing looked from someone else’s perspective, and by the time I graduated my writing was completely different.
So a Creative Writing degree undoubtedly improves you just by forcing you to approach the craft in different ways. There was particular emphasis on getting us to think about the identity of our work and where it might fit into the wider world of publishing. We were encouraged to develop our unique “voice” as a writer. There were also some neat insights into actually publishing your work, and for one semester we even had an editor from Macmillan come in to help us. She was really helpful, and brought me to the realization that every student makes at one point or another: that Creative Writing professors have their own ideas about what makes a good story, and sometimes those are wildly different from what the publishing industry is looking for.
Toward the end of the degree, our professors helped us a lot in trying to figure out what to do next. We were taught how to market ourselves and our work, as well as various techniques to make ourselves more employable. But ultimately it came back to the same old chestnut that many people struggled with in their late teens: having a clarity of purpose. Knowing who you are, what you’re about, and where you want to go is an immense advantage. If you have clarity of purpose, then you can set yourself concrete, achievable targets which are what you need to get moving. Time is money, as Franklin once said.
Naturally, our professors tried to assure us that, as Creative Writing graduates, we were perfectly employable. But the fact that they had to persuade us that our degrees were worth something is telling in and of itself. My personal opinion is that, unless you want to teach Creative Writing, then the degree really is what you make of it. It comes down to whether you have a good plan and good hustle. I have a few friends that went on to teach Creative Writing, which is a fairly popular choice among graduates. If you can prove you have knowledge in something (that proof being a degree) then you can likely find a gig teaching it somewhere. Naturally, teaching is a different skill to writing, but they feed into one another quite nicely. As a teacher you can use your summers to work on your writing too, which I know a lot of Creative Writing professors really value. Check the author bio in most novels today, and you will see a lot of writers that are also teachers- even the ones with bestsellers.
When I was traveling throughout the United States in the years after my graduation (partially to avoid thinking of the future), I was often asked what I did back home. I would get embarrassed, because the truth was not much. I’d work odd jobs to save up for more traveling. There was no plan, no clarity of purpose, because my focus was on having as much fun in the present as possible. I had to delay confronting what I hadn’t planned for: building a life for myself. When I told people I had a degree in Creative Writing, one of the first questions they asked was “Why don’t you become a teacher, then?”
As I said earlier, while teaching Creative Writing is a popular choice for graduates, it’s still its own discipline. And frankly I don’t have the skillset, personality, or stamina to be a teacher. Going down that route was never an option for me. I have a pretty intense phobia of public speaking and I’m awful at thinking on the spot. That’s partly why I love writing. With writing, you aren’t communicating in real time. I can say exactly what I want to say, in exactly the way I want to say it.
When helping us to prepare for the world of work, our teachers told us to emphasize our “transferrable skills”. On the surface, Creative Writing doesn’t look very useful. As I mentioned earlier, it’s an art, a hobby, a craft. If someone has a degree in Mechanical Engineering or Medicine, then you know exactly what they can provide, and people with those degrees know exactly where to look and what their investment is worth. Every degree is an investment, both in money and time. And while a Creative Writing graduate has a wider array of skills than one might think, the sad truth is that employers aren’t looking for transferrable skills. They don’t count for nothing, of course, but employers will always prioritize qualifications and work experience when hiring someone. Transferrable skills, such as being organized or a good communicator, should supplement those things.
After leaving university, I felt trapped in the cycle of trying to get experience but being rejected because I didn’t have any experience. It’s depressing, and a lot of my friends have gone through it too. The modern job market is especially cruel to young people trying to break into a career. There are multiple factors I think: the rough transition that comes with deindustrialization into a service economy, the abject failure of neoliberalism and free market capitalism, the gutting of the education system, the 2008 financial crisis, and- more recently- the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s also the fact that, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, the worth of an undergraduate degree in general has gone down on account of the fact so many more people go to university than they did in the 20th century. Getting a degree doesn’t make you stand out anymore. More and more people are going into postgraduate education in order to attain the niche that will catch the eye of employers. I’m one of them. Even though it will mean taking on more debt, I judged that it’s what I needed to do in order to break into a career job. It’s more time and more money that needs to be spent in order to, ultimately, earn a living wage. And I feel like that’s something a lot of people have resigned themselves to at the moment.
I know that the phrase “It’s what you make of it” sounds like a cop-out. Anything can be what you make of it. Getting hazed at a frat party is what you make of it. But it nonetheless holds true when discussing the worth of a degree like Creative Writing, given the way the world is stacked up against you under neoliberalism. Not everyone I graduated with struggled with employability the way myself and others did. I know Creative Writing graduates that were able to build themselves good careers in creative industries like marketing, advertising, or media. But their Creative Writing degrees weren’t passports to those roles. They got there from having good hustle- whether that’s putting in the hours in an internship or making the right connections. They were relentless, charismatic, and proactive. They took their degree and got creative with it- but to do that you need a solid plan. And to get a solid plan you need clarity of purpose.
I don’t believe in a calling or a destiny, especially when it comes to the world of work. Jobs are way too specific to accommodate the breadth of skills we’ve acquired from tens of thousands of years of evolution. I believe that everyone has a talent, but that talent isn’t something that can be expressed with the precise terminology of modern labor. Rather, I think that we each have a set of abilities or aptitudes, and we should seek to find the career that best aligns with them. The master’s degree I’ll be starting in September is something I think matches up with my personal skillset. It’s not my calling, but I finally feel like I’ve got clarity of purpose again.