Inever got an advanced degree in writing. I don’t have an advanced degree in anything, actually. I graduated from NYU with a bachelor’s degree in political science (because you have to major in something) and I still feel lucky to have received what I consider to have been an excellent, old-fashioned, broad-minded liberal arts education.
While I always knew that I wanted to be a writer, and while I took a few writing classes as an undergrad, I chose not to seek out a master’s of fine arts in creative writing once I was finished at NYU. I was suspicious of the idea that the best place for me to find my voice would be in a room filled with fifteen other young writers trying to find their voices.
Also, I wasn’t exactly sure what an advanced degree in creative writing would afford me. Going to an arts school is not like going to dentistry school, for instance, where you can be pretty certain of finding a job in your chosen field once your studies are over. And while I do think it’s important for dentists to be officially credentialed by the state (and airline pilots, and lawyers, and manicurists, for that matter), I am not convinced that we need officially credentialed novelists. History seems to agree with me on this point. Twelve North American writers have won the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1901: Not one of them had an MFA. Four of them never even got past high school.
These days, there are plenty of staggeringly expensive schools where you can go to study the arts. Some of them are fabulous; some of them, not so much. If you want to take that path, go for it—but know that it’s an exchange, and make certain that this exchange truly benefits you. What the schools get from the exchange is clear: your money. What the students get out of the exchange depends on their devotion to learning, the seriousness of the program, and the quality of the teachers. To be sure, you can learn discipline in these programs, and style, and perhaps even courage. You may also meet your tribe at art school—those peers who will provide valuable professional connections and support for your ongoing career. You might even be lucky enough to find the mentor of your dreams, in the form of a particularly sensitive and engaged teacher. But I worry that what students of the arts are often seeking in higher education is nothing more than proof of their own legitimacy—proof that they are for real as creative people, because their degree says so.
On one hand, I completely understand this need for validation; it’s an insecure pursuit, to attempt to create. But if you’re working on your craft every day on your own, with steady discipline and love, then you are already for real as a creator, and you don’t need to pay anybody to affirm that for you.
If you’ve already gone out and earned yourself an advanced degree in some creative field or another, no worries! If you’re lucky, it made your art better, and at the very least I’m sure it did you no harm. Take whatever lessons you learned at school and use them to improve your craft. Or if you’re getting a degree in the arts right now, and you can honestly and easily afford to do so, that’s also fine. If your school gave you a free ride, better still. You’re fortunate to be there, so use that good fortune to your advantage. Work hard, make the most of your opportunities, and grow, grow, grow. This can be a beautiful time of focused study and creative expansion. But if you’re considering some sort of advanced schooling in the arts and you’re not rolling in cash, I’m telling you—you can live without it. You can certainly live without the debt, because debt will always be the abattoir of creative dreams.
One of the best painters I know is a teacher at one of the world’s most esteemed art schools—but my friend himself does not have an advanced degree. He is a master, yes, but he learned his mastery on his own. He became a great painter because he worked devilishly hard for years to become a great painter. Now he teaches others, at a level that he himself was never taught. Which kind of makes you question the necessity of the whole system. But students flock from all over the world to study at this school, and many of these students (the ones who are not from wealthy families, or who did not get a full ride of scholarships from the university) come out of that program with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. My friend cares immensely about his students, and so watching them fall so deeply into debt (while, paradoxically, they strive to become more like him) makes this good man feel sick in the heart, and it makes me feel sick in the heart, too.
When I asked my friend why they do it—why these students mortgage their futures so deeply for a few years of creative study—he said, “Well, the truth is, they don’t always think it through. Most artists are impulsive people who don’t plan very far ahead. Artists, by nature, are gamblers. Gambling is a dangerous habit. But whenever you make art, you’re always gambling. You’re rolling the dice on the slim odds that your investment of time, energy, and resources now might pay off later in a big way—that somebody might buy your work, and that you might become successful. Many of my students are gambling that their expensive education will be worth it in the long run.”
I get this. I’ve always been creatively impulsive, too. It comes with the territory of curiosity and passion. I take leaps and gambles with my work all the time—or at least I try to. You must be willing to take risks if you want to live a creative existence. But if you’re going to gamble, know that you are gambling. Never roll the dice without being aware that you are holding a pair of dice in your hands. And make certain that you can actually cover your bets (both emotionally and financially).
My fear is that many people pay through the nose for advanced schooling in the arts without realizing that they’re actually gambling, because—on the surface—it can look like they’re making a sound investment in their future. After all, isn’t school where people go to learn a profession—and isn’t a profession a responsible and respectable thing to acquire? But the arts are not a profession, in the manner of regular professions. There is no job security in creativity, and there never will be.
Going into massive debt in order to become a creator, then, can make a stress and a burden out of something that should only ever have been a joy and a release. And after having invested so much in their education, artists who don’t immediately find professional success (which is most artists) can feel like failures. Their sense of having failed can interfere with their creative self-confidence—and maybe even stop them from creating at all. Then they’re in the terrible position of having to deal not only with a sense of shame and failure, but also with steep monthly bills that will forever remind them of their shame and failure.
Please understand that I am not against higher education by any means; I am merely against crippling indebtedness—particularly for those who wish to live a creative life. And recently (at least here in America) the concept of higher education has become virtually synonymous with crippling indebtedness. Nobody needs debt less than an artist. So try not to fall into that trap. And if you have already fallen into that trap, try to claw your way out of it by any means necessary, as soon as you can. Free yourself so that you can live and create more freely, as you were designed by nature to do.
Be careful with yourself, is what I’m saying.
Be careful about safeguarding your future—but also about safeguarding your sanity.