Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Artist Unleashed: LEGIT OR BULLS**T? by Julia Tagliere

I’m a professional liar. Every day, I make up stories, twist the truth, spin yarns, and tell tall tales. On a truthfulness scale, I fall somewhere between The Serpent (“I promise, it’s just an apple. It can’t hurt you”) and Pinocchio (though still far short of most modern politicians). My job is to tell lies and to tell them so convincingly that everyone believes them. What do I do?

I am a writer.

Now, anyone can say that they’re a writer, but—since we lie so much of the time—can you really believe them? Where’s the proof? What’s the official designation? Is there a membership badge? Is it the mere act of publication for pay? And what kind of publications count? Newsletters? Literary journals? Blogs? Or does that designation come from something loftier? Do you have to attend retreats? Is there a minimum number of seminars required? Or does the right to call yourself a writer come only from a university degree?

That’s a much-debated question for many writers, especially those just starting out: Do you really need a degree? Well, if wondering has been keeping you up nights, then this is your lucky day, because I’ve done some preliminary informal research* and I’ve discovered that when surveyed, my respondents generally fell into one of four groups:
  • Group 1: People with degrees who believe you need a degree 
  • Group 2: People without degrees who believe you don’t need a degree 
  • Group 3: People who say they’re in Group 2 but who are lying and really secretly want one (Remember, these are writers you’re dealing with, so you can never really be certain) 
  • Group 4: People formerly from Group 1 who have degrees but did not go on to productive careers as writers themselves and now believe they should have listened when people asked them, “Why do you need a degree to become a writer?”
When I first decided to try my hand at writing, I was firmly in Group 2. After all, just look at how many fantastically accomplished writers exist without degrees. Robert Ludlum. Michael Crichton (although to be fair, he did start off that way). Kurt Vonnegut. Norman Mailer. Harper Lee, for crying out loud! Clearly, there has to be more to becoming a writer than just getting a diploma, doesn’t there?

Yeah, I felt that way, too—until I was accepted into the M.A. in Writing program at DePaul University. (I swear I only applied because I was bored. Really. Yeah, like Michael Crichton, only without the biological anthropology detour. I mean, if you search for successful writers without degrees, you’ll get some 28 million hits; search for successful writers with degrees and all you get is crickets chirping. Of course you don’t really need a degree.)

But when I started showing up for classes, a funny thing happened: I could practically feel my noggin expanding to hold a whole world of knowledge I had never known existed. I could actually feel my brain growing, and the results began to show in my writing. I started to wonder if maybe that diploma was more than just a piece of paper. And just like that, I found myself on my way to being a newly minted member of Group 1. (Try to keep up; these shifts happen quickly.)

So there I was, happily storing up knowledge, and then…

We moved.

Undaunted, once we’d settled in, I applied to the University of Minnesota writing program to finish, assuming that since I was, in essence, a transfer student, I’d be practically a legacy admission, an assumption that lasted right up until Reality kicked my butt with its size 13 steel-toed boots.

That’s right. I was rejected.


And a second time.

Are you kidding me?

And then, unbelievably, a third time.


Ouch, indeed. Just like that, I was dumped unceremoniously into Group 3. (Okay, it wasn’t ‘just like that,’ it was a long, painful, and whiny three years .) Once the mourning ended and I remembered that you don’t really need a degree to be a successful writer, I decided I’d had enough of wallowing in Group 3 and if I was going to be a writer, well, then I’d just have to do everything I could to be a great writer without that fancy-schmancy degree. Group 2! My people! My people!

I wrote. I read. I studied. I took classes in writing, editing, proofreading, and graphic design. I joined writers’ groups. I networked. I volunteered my writing and editing skills for whomever would take me. Eventually, I built up a small pool of freelance clients and I poured all of my writing dreams into their projects. I published articles in magazines. I worked my way up to a job as associate editor of a national trade magazine. I self-published my first novel, Widow Woman ! Take that, stupid diploma! Who needs you, anyway? I thought I was cured.

Until we moved again.

Tempted by the thought of a new program that might see my genius for the true miracle it was, I took what I thought was a long shot and applied to Johns Hopkins University. (If you’re going to dream, dream big.) This time, Reality arrived not wearing steel-toed boots, but borne on fairy wings and carrying an acceptance letter and a basketful of kittens. (Ah, I lied. See? You’re catching on.)

But now, play along with my little shell game and see if you can guess which group I belong to now. (And if you figure it out, let me know, because I’m feeling a bit confused.)

I’ve already a “productive” writer: magazine articles, a novel, a blog, paying clients. I think I’ve earned the right to call myself a writer at this point (though there’s always room for more paying gigs, am I right?)

But if that’s really the case, why do I still need (or want, to be more accurate) a degree? Is it just those letters after my name? A silly, embossed piece of paper? That elusive sense of legitimacy? Is it the closure, the finishing of what I started? A very shallow yes, I think, to all of those. But I think—at least, I hope—there’s more to my decision than that.

Because here’s the thing: I know that I became a better writer through my earlier graduate work. I became a closer, more critical reader. I developed skills I didn’t know I would need and that I certainly hadn’t learned in my undergraduate Spanish and French major /minor. (No lie that; I taught in public high schools for nearly a decade, too.)

But I also know that I became a better writer working outside of a formal degree program. I became a better networker. I became a better marketer, a better finder and consumer of a vast world of amazing resources—all because I was forced to in the absence of a formal academic structure.

For me, today, the question of finishing this degree is no longer about either academic immersion or practical, real-world application; it’s about both. So now, if you’ve been keeping up, I guess you could argue that I’m about to become a member of Groups 1, 2, and 3 (though I confess: I’m fervently hoping I won’t end up a member of Group 4).

I no longer really have a question about myself anymore; after all, I’ve already registered for class. If you find my reasons are equal parts valid and shallow, then so be it. I’ve already admitted to being a liar, so I’m obviously okay with admitting my foibles, and we writers are not only liars, but also by our very nature a pretty narcissistic bunch. I mean, who really believes that their words are so important the whole world will want to read them?

Well, I do.

But then, I’ve already admitted I’m a liar.

What do you think? Legit, or bulls**t?

*By research, I mean I asked four or five of my writer friends. And my next-door-neighbor. And my best friend. They’re not writers, but love to take surveys. I also approached one half-drunk author at a conference who shouted expletives at me before I ran away from his table. Oh, and I wrote up a survey for Survey Monkey but I forgot to send it before deadline, so this all very official.

Julia Tagliere is a freelance writer and editor. She studied in the M.A. in Creative Writing program at DePaul University before entering Johns Hopkins University in 2014 to complete her M.A. in Fiction Writing. Her work has appeared in The Writer and

Hay & Grower magazines and she is a featured author at An active blogger and past finalist in The Loft Literary Center's Mentor Series Competition in Minneapolis, Julia currently lives in Maryland with her family and her writing partner, a crazy Weimaraner named Loki. You can find Julia and follow all her adventures at, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc. Widow Woman is her first novel. 

Click to purchase

1962 began a time of tremendous change all across America. For Audrey Randolph, 1962 also brings personal tragedy: her mother dies suddenly, leaving behind a lifetime of letters, photos, and unimaginable secrets that will call into question everything Audrey thought she knew about her mother, about relationships--about the very nature of love itself. In Widow Woman, Julia Tagliere delivers a sensitive, compelling, and timely exploration of love, in all its incarnations--and the lengths to which we will go to hold onto it.


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  1. I think it is like many things in life - the degree per se: does not make one better at anything necessarily. Some of the dumbest and most ignorant people I have met have Phd's or are doctors or lawyers or professionals of some kind.

    Some of the most intelligent and wisest people I have met did not complete secondary school.

    With writing the writing matters. A degree might help someone or it might not.

    My exposure to university was that in the main it did not encourage people to think. Those who did well were best at absorbing and memorising what the tutor wanted and regurgitating it in a form the tutor and system wanted.

    I actually believe that university often, well, at least in this day and age, limits intelligence and creativity.

    But we are all different.

    1. I would humbly suggest that writing may be an intellectual activity for some, and there is nothing wrong with that, but it is not for everyone. The heart and soul play a part in much of the best writing and there is nothing intellectual about the creative source of truly great art of any kind.

      A child can learn to write and by the age of twelve, most can string words together and certainly by eighteen, before any studies for a university degree begin, for some younger, the 'intellectual' component is in place. The mechanics are there.

      What is required for a writer, whether of poetry or prose, are the non-intellectual qualities of heart and soul and intuition and inspiration; the eye which sees beyond the material; the ear which hears beyond the mechanical; the mind which soars beyond the intellect - and those things cannot be learned or gained through any degree.

      The greatest writers, like the greatest artists in any field, are born with gifts which inspire and at times consume, the intellect.

      Depending upon how one expresses in word the creative form, a degree may expand or diminish one's abilities. If this were not so then all of our greatest writers and sources of creativity and art would be found with degrees. They are not and they never have been.

      Follow your heart's call; it will take you to more wonderful places than the intellect could ever imagine.

      Just my thoughts. And perhaps I should say, I don't have a degree from a university. I wanted to be an archeologist when I was a child but my parents were poor and university was expensive. I became a journalist instead. Within a couple of years the Whitlam Government in Australia made university education free to everyone. (It is no longer free but it is still much cheaper than many places and is available to everyone who qualifies and the debt is then paid back once the individual is earning more than $36,000 a year, or some such figure.)

      Anyway, by that time I was married with babies and working full-time but I did take advantage of what was called 'mature-entry' level to university. I did not complete a degree but I did English Literature and Ancient History long enough to realise that university was not expanding my mind, but contracting it. I also realised that those hallowed halls from which others emerged, superior or so I thought, were often mundane and churning out minds less free than my own. Degrees, I decided in my late twenties did not make for a better mind, more intelligence or any superiority of Self. But I was of course delighted to have both of my children go to university and complete a number of degrees. We all have to decide what is right for us.

    2. Hi, Roslyn,

      Thanks for your thoughtful replies. I agree with you on several counts, namely, that education doesn't make the man/woman (it's the other way around); that conformity is a risk of higher education; and that in all artistic endeavors, anything that limits creativity is bad. However, I have heard it said you have to know the rules to break them, and I'm hoping my school experiences will allow and encourage me to do both.

  2. You are fighting hard for that degree!
    I have one, just not in writing. Of course, I never wanted to be an author. Still not sure how that happened.

    1. Hi, Alex,

      Yes, I am; guessing that's the narcissist in me coming out. The Accidental Author...I like it! Thanks for your reply!

  3. My bias is that since writing is an intellectual activity, earning a college degree is generally a good idea, although certainly not necessary. But a degree in what? Vonnegut studied chemistry and anthropology.

    1. Hi, Stephen,

      Thanks for your reply. What degree, indeed? I had trouble finding authors whose bios actually listed a degree in writing. So WTF am I doing? I'll keep you posted whether it's worth the fight. Early impressions of my first course are encouraging, plus, it's really amazing to talk to the others in the class about what they're doing. :)

  4. I'm kind of in Group 4, although I didn't do my degree with the intention of being a writer (I had no idea what I wanted to be, so naturally I did English Lit and Philosophy). I haven't gone on to have a productive career in anything (let alone writing) and am now contemplating the point of degrees altogether! But then again, I'm only 24 so I may be jumping the gun a bit it. Most of my friends are in the same boat after coming back from uni to discover there are no jobs.

    I personally don't think you need a degree to be a writer-just lots of imagination, dedication and life experience!

    1. Hi, Tizzy,

      Love your reply; the bit about your majors made me smile. Thanks, by the way, for making me feel ancient. Since I'm practically old enough to be your mother, I guess I can say I've got a little more life experience, at least enough to say you don't have to know what you're going to do for the rest of your life at 24 (ahem, I am just getting started myself now. Late bloomer). Your "writer recipe" sounds pretty good to me! Best of luck to you and your boat mates; tough times for new grads trying to find jobs everywhere.

  5. Double post, sorry..

    I would love to know some of the things you learned when you were taking the creative writing program. What sort of things did they teach that made you a more critical reader? Like you I've applied to a few MFA in Creative Writing programs and like you I have felt the sting of rejection. It was mostly out of curiosity that I applied, and perhaps I had a lack of enthusiasm in my admission essay.

    I often wonder if there aren't great storytellers who might be mediocre writers, or excellent writers who are mediocre storytellers, and I wonder if formal training doesn't bridge some of the gaps, especially for those excellent storytellers who might be missing some of the finer points of writing. I don't think my undergraduate English courses did much to help me with my creative writing, but perhaps they did.

    That said, like the examples you gave, there are plenty of flat out amazing writers who don't have degrees - i.e Neil Gaiman

    Very interesting post!

    1. Steven W., you listed my absolute favorite writer in the ENTIRE UNIVERSE in your reply, so I can tell we'll get on famously. :) The two courses from DePaul that stand out in my mind are 1) an in-depth editing course (a semester of nothing but the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition) and 2) a course called Stylistics. In my reply to Roslyn, I raised the idea that while creativity lets you light the fire, mechanics help you bend it to your will. Prior to those two courses, my mechanics were adequate (my mother was an English teacher), but that's where I learned the boring, repressing things I needed to know to improve the technical aspects of my writing. Stylistics is where I really learned to read critically. Prior to that course, I read only what I wanted to and only what I liked, but after that course, I started expanding my reading list and as I read, I tried to really think about how authors achieved the effects they did. What kinds of tools did they use to make me cry? What was it about this page that made me desperate to turn to the next? Truly, I had never read like that before. Maybe other writers out there are born reading like that, but I wasn't. I always read to escape, and those classes showed me other reasons to read. I think it had a profound effect on my writing. But, as we're seeing in other replies, others may have had much different, more limiting experiences. I try to keep an open mind and learn from every single person I can anything that has the possibility to make me a better writer. I would say, if that degree matters to you, though, don't give up. And admissions essays are total bitches. ;)

  6. This post cracked me up! If the writing is good the writing is good, whether the author has a degree or not. No lie :)


“I'm using my art to comment on what I see. You don't have to agree with it.” ~John Mellencamp

“Allowing an unimportant mistake to pass without comment is a wonderful social grace” ~Judith S. Marin

“I don't ever try to make a serious social comment.” ~Paul McCartney

“I'd make a comment at a meeting and nobody would even acknowledge me. Then some man would say the same thing and they'd all nod.” ~Charlotte Bunch

“Probably what my comment meant was that I don't care about the circumstances if I can tell the truth.” ~Sally Kirkland

“We're not going to pay attention to the silliness and the petty comments. And quite frankly, women have joined me in this effort, and so it's not about appearances. It's about effectiveness.” ~Katherine Harris