A Writer’s Education

Liberal-Arts2There’s an old joke that many of my writer friends know well:

A neurosurgeon and a writer are introduced at a party, and the neurosurgeon hovers near the writer, “So what do you do?”

“I’m a writer.” Warily, she takes a sip of her wine.  “And you?”

“I’m a neurosurgeon, but when I retire I think I am going to take up writing.”

“Funny”, the writer drains her glass, “when I retire I was thinking of taking up neurosurgery.”

The truth is that I’ve been writing since I was a child, as have most writers I know.  And, like so many writers, I have spent thousands of dollars and many, many years on my education.  As would any neurosurgeon.

For those who adhere to the 10,000-hour rule, while this blog in no way means to discourage you, it’s important to note that recent years have seen disclaimers and caveats to Anders Ericsson’s original study (see Time and BBC News).

While I do believe in practice, when it comes to a writer’s education, I am a passionate advocate of a liberal arts education. I applaud Alan Wildeman’s recent Globe and Mail article, “We ignore liberal arts at our peril.” Wildeman writes, “as a multicultural country playing in the global arena, Canada needs a citizenry that learns and studies human differences, social behaviours and cultural traditions. It needs a citizenry that encourages respect for human rights, and encourages artistic creation and appreciation of the arts. The humanities and social sciences engage in these intersections and contribute to what makes us human.” If one wants to be a writer, a liberal arts degree is one of the best preparations: “with its focus on the broad spectrum of human endeavour…. to ensure that our self-reflections are broad…and that we do not forget the importance of enlightenment and reason.” Above all, a liberal arts education forces one to read and read widely, often difficult texts that make one think hard and critically. I cannot stress how important this is to the craft of writing.

If one has not had the benefit of a liberal arts degree (and even if one has), then if one wants to write, there’s a good deal of book larnin’ to do – and not just the kind that offers to help you sell and market and write your novel or poetry. Reading. Taking liberal arts courses. Engaging in critical thinking. Challenging comfortable assumptions. Reading the masters. Reading. Reading. Reading. (The Importance of Reading)

Or try neurosurgery instead.

This week’s great un-/ undersung CanLit title worth checking out: 

Santa RosaWendy McGrath “What is real when seen through the eyes of a child? When does the harshness of reality transform idyllic memories? The young narrator…seeks the answers to these questions as she tries to make sense of the disintegration of her parents’ marriage—a process echoed by the slow disintegration of their neighbourhood. In subtle poetic prose, Wendy McGrath evokes afternoons at the fair captured in overexposed photographs, and a family’s disquieting day at the beach as moments that exist apart from time, in a place where every sense is heightened, and where every memory is sharpened as if in a lucid dream where understanding lies just beyond reach.”

Writing Quote: “I quickly saw the immense power of a liberal education. For me, the most important use of it is that it teaches you how to write. In my first year in college, I took an English composition course. My teacher, an elderly Englishman with a sharp wit and an even sharper red pencil, was tough. Now I know I’m supposed to say that a liberal education teaches you to think but thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. When I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them. Whether you’re a novelist, a businessman, a marketing consultant or a historian, writing forces you to make choices and it brings clarity and order to your ideas.” – Fareed Zakaria, Indian-born American journalist and author, host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS (b. 1964)

Writing Tips:  “Reading before writing… becomes a way of conversing with other writers.”- Stephanie Vanderslice   “You must try to know everything that has ever been written that is worth remembering and you must keep up with what your contemporaries are doing.” – Richard Bausch

Writing Prompt: Inviting __________________ to dinner. (e.g. Shakespeare, your favourite author, Tommy Douglas, Lady Gaga, etc.)

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