(You’re a Canadian, so this is new territory for me. For the following advice, you can insert, wherever you deem appropriate, various references to ketchup chips, Tim Horton’s, Quebecois sovereignty, and so on.)
My heart breaks for you, @boardwalkk. I’ve been where you are. And much like a virus or the inability to enjoy cilantro, there’s no magic cure-all for uncertainty or self-loathing. While you may live in a magical cloudcuckooland of socialized medicine (inc., I imagine, mental healthcare), there’s no single-payer wisdom. Which is why you’ve got some big choices to make regarding your plans, your budget, and your time.
I can’t make those choices for you, but there are a few truths about higher education, literature (and the study thereof), and growing up that I believe translate to Canadian. And because he’s an extremely disarming and charming presence, they will be illustrated with Miles Teller gifs.
TRUTH #1: You’re definitely not always your best self when you’re young.
Unfortunately, for a while, the below gif is gonna be only partially true.
The post-high-school years are a lot of things for a lot of people, but what they’re not is entirely easy or fun. You won’t be awesome. You’ll be flying blind. You won’t necessarily enjoy who you are because you’ll be scared you’re not working on what you need to become the person you maybe think you should be. You’ll enjoy things that in a year will cause you to become mortified.
Like a lot of creative types (inc. yours truly), there’s no quantifiable 5- or 10-year plan for you, no “write x, y, z, be published by this person, determine 15 beautiful metaphors, and render beautifully and savagely the truth of (insert significant experience here) = professional success and satisfaction”. There are some simple things you can do; keep writing, learn to devote yourself to boring but useful tasks (like editing, research, and reading books you hate).
But it doesn’t matter whether it’s a college education, a job, a twilight-of-the-soul existence outside of the job market and/or within the working poor, gap year(s), marriage/children, or being a member of the hidden homeless: you’re going to be confronted by things that not only aren’t enjoyable, but don’t seem useful no matter how you look at them. This is inevitable. You carve out a more refined (and bruised, and scarred) version of yourself by bumping and scraping along this maze, and if you choose not to engage at all, to withdraw entirely into yourself, then this is your choice, but it’s a coward’s choice.
And as for studying English…
TRUTH #2: English educations, optimally, are meant to take the reader and writer down a peg by providing them with perspective, allowing them to understand the importance of the written word beyond how it effects just you.
Nobody strolls into an English education naked and devoid of experience or preferences.
You’re going to be bored or dislike the things you’re assigned, ESPECIALLY in the first couple years where you have to filter through the general literature curriculum; the classics, boring-as-fuck novels, the unreadable criticism, and so-far-removed-from-relevance-it’s-stunning poetry. That’s because you come to this education knowing what books/authors/styles you like; hell, that’s the reason you wanted to study lit in the first place.
I had a teacher (a Canadian, actually!) who got fired from my high school for explaining to his supervisor that the reason he would state to the students that he disliked the curriculum was that he didn’t think it necessary to like literature to study it. “Would you ask an oncologist if they like cancer?” he said.
Literature shouldn’t be purely likable. Maybe less than 15 percent of the shit I read at college was capital-F Fun. But the history of the written word and accompanying creative thought is not a happy story. It’s one of toil and futility and depravity and idiocy and cruelty and bigotry and murder and endless underground caves of depression filled with creepy eyeless fish. And literature’s constantly decried as a soft or useless pursuit for milquetoast academics who’d spasm in shock when confronted with “reality”, as if the collection of a certain amount of money or knowing how to use an oscillating spindle sander or hoisting a protest sign or caring for the sick and needy are the only roads to a greater understanding of the world and its inhabitants.
Literature shows you that every time you write something you are a minuscule part of this huge roiling incidental history of folks trying to squinch their thoughts into the point of a pen. And it shows you ways to get bigger, and where to fit in, or where to fight back.
When it comes down to it, we all search for beauty and meaning. Some in medicine, some in manual labor, some in drugs, some in coping mechanisms, and you in books. You don’t need to do anything specific to mine inspiration for your writing, but you gotta do something. Studying literature in a structured setting forces you to learn the many and conflicting rules and ideas that have governed you in ways you never understood. Once you learn the rules and ideas, you’ll be able to see what part of the writing world needs your presence and contribution.
TRUTH #3: If you ultimately decide your time, money, and energy are better spent earning a degree vs. the extra professional wrangling and hustling required by searching for a job that won’t demand a degree, go for it.
Yes, not everyone who’s got a degree is skilled. Yes, not everyone who’s got a job deserves it over the rejected candidate. Yes, often a degree is just a signifier that you spend a certain amount of time doing something sanctioned by an academic body to a certain standard, which employers use as a stand in for “can show up on time and spell good”. So if you decide college isn’t for you right now, then go do something else. Work. Make friends. Travel someplace alone. Stay busy. Your friends are motion and action. Your enemies are stagnation and circular depression. The world has no map. But you do have access to the internet. And you have a goal (to write). And if you keep the machine in your skull running, and keep your body healthy, and connect with the right and supportive folks, then opportunities start to pop out at you, and your vision starts to sharpen, and the next step isn’t so far away.
I wanted to chime in briefly on this one. If you do decide to go back to school, remember that not all English degrees are created equal! Sure there are certain basics that you’ll probably have to take anywhere, however many programs offer a wide variety of choices. If the romantic poets aren’t for you, consider a school that has a strong program in modern, postmodern, and/or contemporary literature. Heck, some programs even have a strong emphasis on experimental fiction (which can be very trippy, but if that’s your thing…) Also, consider the different requirements for a creative writing major. In some cases, you wouldn’t have to take as many pure literature classes.
Sure, there are going to be books, classes, or projects that you hate, but keep in mind that to make a living writing you will, on occasion, need to be able to write about something that you really don’t care about. It’s a good skill to learn.
That said, I agree with DIP that there’s no one path to being a successful writer/human being. Sometimes experience can replace formal training in the publishing world.