I'm not sure exactly when I started considering myself a "real" writer, but I'm crystal-clear on when I decided to leave the world of academia behind.
In 1993, I was all set to graduate from the University of Georgia with a Bachelor's of English. Being an indecisive bonehead in my very early 20's, I had no idea what to do with my life – I knew I’d keep writing, but at the time I was a long way from supporting myself with freelance work - so I applied to the UGA Master's Degree program.
Why stop being a student? I knew what student life was like. I was accustomed to writing academic papers. And from what I had heard, the thesis in the Creative Writing program was, to no one's surprise, something creative, like a novel. I could write a novel for my Master's thesis! Sure, why not? Never mind that Master's-thesis novels were notorious for coming back from the reviewing professors "dipped in blood," the red ink on them was so abundant.
(In 1993, everything at UGA was still very paper-based. The way you registered for classes, right up through my last year there, was to pencil in the little bubbles on a freaking Scantron card, go into the basement of the administration building, and slide the cards through slots in the wall, on the other side of which were human beings who fed them into a card reader. The card reader in turn let the people know whether or not you got into the classes you wanted in time, and then another human being would stand in front of everyone in the waiting area and call out the names of which students had made it into which classes. The year after I left? THEN everything went to online registration. Of course.)
Anyway. During my second-to-last quarter of classes in the English department (the last of two quarters subsidized by Aliens: Colonial Marines money), I went to the department secretary and asked her for everything I needed to apply to the Creative Writing Master's program for the following fall. She gave me a number of pamphlets and guidelines and wished me luck. According to all the material, I had to compile my best creative work, along with (my memory gets a little hazy here) something like a letter stating why I wanted to be in the program.
So I put everything together - I even made a nifty-looking booklet of my short stories, with little tabs sticking out so the professors could easily flip to each one - and turned everything in, right before the deadline, which was my standard operating procedure. I also included a check for the fifty dollar application fee.
Part of applying for the Master's program was an interview with one of the professors. I'm not going to use his real name here, for the same reason that I haven't used other people's real names in the past: I don't want to get sued. And by not using his real name, I'm free to tell you that this guy was the most pretentious jackass I had ever met. Our interview included a section that went like this:
JACKASS: So, have you had any publishing experience?
ME: Well, I've been getting comic books published, on and off, for the last two or three years.JACKASS: [long, contempt-filled pause] I wouldn't let anyone else in the program know about that if I were you.
I walked out of that interview thinking, "Wow, what a pretentious jackass!" But I figured he was just one guy, and didn't represent the whole Creative Writing program, so I decided to ignore him and let it go.
Cut to about two weeks later, to a conversation I was having with another Creative Writing Master's applicant. "So," she asked me, "what was your critical paper on?"
Slowly, but with a rising feeling of dread, I said, "What critical paper?"
She held up a little red pamphlet that I had never seen before, and said, "The one this asks for. ...Didn't you get one of these from the department secretary?"
I went into full-bore panic mode, but on the off-chance that the other applicant was mistaken, I tore ass down to the department secretary's office, where I asked her if the application process required a critical paper along with all the creative stuff. The secretary said, "Yes, of course it does," and held up that same little red pamphlet my fellow student had shown me. "It says so right here, very clearly."
All the blood in my head fell into my feet. "But you never gave me one of those!"
With a haughty and very final tone, she said, "Of course I did."
I left the office in a funk. All I could envision was the approval committee looking at my incomplete application and saying things like, "Well, this Dan Jolley guy certainly doesn't take the process seriously. He didn't even turn in all the necessary material."
So I went home, thought it over, then went back the next day and withdrew my Master's program application.
Instead I applied to the Journalism undergraduate program. Maybe, I reasoned, this was for the best; instead of subjecting myself to punishing, ego-bashing scrutiny of my creative talents, I could get a degree in something that might be applicable in the real world. The secretary didn't seem to care one way or the other what I did, but she did refund my check for fifty dollars, which was a huge amount of money to me at the time. So it was sort of like a bonus for withdrawing, if you looked at it sideways.
Feeling more or less okay with myself, I finished out Winter Quarter and got ready for Spring Quarter, set to face the final few classes separating me from my diploma.
One of those classes turned out to be taught by no one other than Pretentious Jackass.
I became even less impressed with this guy once he started “teaching.” He was like the ridiculous old professor in Dead Poets Society who wanted to chart the merit of poetry by using a graph with X and Y axes – except instead of a graph, Pretentious Jackass had a checklist written down in a little notebook, and he wouldn’t let us discuss anything about a specific piece until we’d satisfied his checklist, for every single story or poem, all quarter long.
I didn't learn much in Pretentious Jackass's class.
At one point, he told us in very flatly-stated terms, "The only thing worth writing is literature." (He pronounced it "LIT-tra-tchoor.") He then went on to say, just as matter-of-factly, "And you CANNOT make a living writing LIT-tra-tchoor."
I sat there and stared at him and thought, "Wow, you...have never been published."
But all of that is secondary, in my mind, anyway, to Pretentious Jackass's further involvement in my attempt to get into the Creative Writing Master's program. On the first day of class, while I was sitting there with eight or nine other students waiting to get the syllabus, Pretentious Jackass came in, stared around the room for a few seconds, and finally settled on me. "Are you Dan Jolley?"
A little flat-footed, I said, "Yes...?"
He said, "Welcome to the Creative Writing Master's program. You've been accepted."
I sputtered for a second. "But...but I, uh...I withdrew my application..."
Without missing a beat or changing expression, he said, "Oh. Well then, never mind." And he started class.
Anyway. I finished Spring Quarter, got my diploma, worked the summer at Student Note Service (getting a promotion to Assistant Manager along the way), and when Fall Quarter started, I dutifully reported to the first of my classes in the mysterious halls of the Journalism School.
Long story short on my Journalism career: it took me a quarter and a half to realize that I really, truly, honestly despised Journalism. I was fed up with higher education as a whole, honestly, plus I already had my degree in English…
…so I quit. No more academics for me. The closest I ever came to going back to school was seven years later, when I took a class on International Horror Films at the University of New Mexico, and that was just for kicks.
But leaving college behind was okay, I thought, because I started working full-time at Student Note Service, and that paid well enough for a bonehead in his very early 20's to rent a cheap apartment with a roommate and put gas in his cheap car and buy cheap food.
And because, by that point, John Nadeau had called me up and offered to introduce me to his editor at Valiant Comics. The future looked pretty darn bright. Bright enough for me, anyway.
But let me tell you something about being a freelance writer and getting a college degree (or degrees). I’ve mentioned this before, but just to be as clear as possible: those letters you can put after your name? NO ONE CARES ABOUT THEM. You know how many times, over the last twenty-one years, an editor has asked about my education? None. None times. It doesn’t come up. Editors care about whether or not you can write, period.
Now, don’t think I’m telling you not to go to college. You should absolutely go to college if you can, because you’ll have a wealth of experiences you can get no place else, and if you get good teachers and work hard, you’ll learn a lot. Writers are like sponges, and every bit of the knowledge and skills and wisdom you can soak up will make you better at what you do. College is great.
But if you think you’ll get work just because you passed all your classes and got your diploma, well, that’s where you’re wrong, I’m afraid. I don’t know if any of the people I’m working for right now even know whether I went to college or not. What they do know, and what matters, is that I turn in quality work, on time, without being a pain in the ass.
That will get you work.