Monday, May 12, 2014

Day 280 of 365: The Best Major for a Writer

I've been thinking a lot about college in general: about the future of higher education, about the frustrating concept that college is now the place to reverse the damage created by an overly-standardized public education system, about what the end goal is to a college education these days (especially since so many schools -- especially the tier-1 schools like MIT, Harvard, Yale, etc -- put their coursework and syllabi online for free so anyone can audit).

I also started thinking about "going to college for writing".

I don't mean, "going to college to improve one's grammar, spelling, and syntax." Which everyone should do. I'm of the belief that everyone should, bare minimum, take an English 101 course after high school and learn how to actually write a sentence. There is no reason why, in this day and age, with spellcheck now part of our internet browsers, that we should be doing stupid shit like spelling ridiculous with an "e". But that's a rant for a later time.

I'm talking about people who go to college to major in something that will help them as a fiction writer. The typical go-to is the English major (which I ain't knocking; let me dust off my own English degree here and display it real quick). And, why not? Read and study major works of literature and maybe you can pick up on what previous writers were able to do.

But I decided that there's a better set of majors if you want to be a writer. If you want to write fiction, major in psychology or sociology.

Maybe I'm saying that because my second area of study was sociology. No, actually, I am saying that because my second area of study was sociology. Because I saw the overlap time and time again in both fields -- so much so that I remember taking Sociology of Boston alongside Survey of American Writers and found myself learning about Anne Bradstreet twice, and for essentially the same reason. Because, once the professor is done prattling on about symbolism and rhetoric, the meat of the work in front of you rests on motivation. Why did that character do that thing. Why did this group of characters do that thing. What was going on during that particular time that would motivate the writer to write about that character doing that thing. Context, context, context.

In my experience, the worst bits of writing come when the characters do incredulous things. When they suddenly go for Option A when no regular person would even glance at it. The books that left the worst tastes in my mouth were the ones were the resolutions came out of no where and the characters at large essentially went, "Okay, cool."

On the flipside, the best bits of writing always point out or demonstrate a very real aspect of being human. Something about how we behave on an individual or on a group level. Something about what motivates us to do the things we do, the think the way we think, and what those consequences might be.

At the end of the day, you can't dissect a piece of fiction without turning into a micro-psychologist or micro-sociologist. Talking about symbolism and analogy only gets you so far -- even in things like poetry, where the emphasis is usually on the "pretty words" and the symbolism. To get a good idea of what is going on, you need to have some understanding of what makes us tick.

...Especially when we're talking about villains in a work of fiction. I know this is personal preference, but I love it when the lines between "the good guy" and "the bad guy" get blurred -- because that's humanity for you. No one is 100% good or bad. It's all a matter of context, of the situation, of motivation, and of how it is perceived by other people.

So that's my rant about what to study if you are looking to become a better writer. To be a compelling novelist, you also have to be a compelling sociologist. Unless you're Stephenie Meyer. Then you just have to be a Mormon who had a dream about sparkly vampires.

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