Friday, 28 April 2017

What degrees do you need to have to be a writer? - Clémentine Beauvais

That's one question I often get asked by French teenagers. It's not entirely surprising: the French education system, French society in general, and the French middle-class in particular, is absolutely obsessed with diplomas, qualifications, school rankings and fine distinctions between different types of degrees that determine your worth in the eye of the rest of your social sphere.

the complete mindf*** of the French higher education system (source) - graph already far outdated as it changes roughly every Tuesday
I generally reply that you don't need any degrees at all, that many authors don't have a baccalauréat (A-Level equivalent), that many haven't been to university, that plenty have seemingly entirely unconnected degrees - business, physics, geography, sports science - and that the Most Important Thing is that you enjoy writing and probably that you encounter stories in many different media, including through books.

Except, of course, high school students are not stupid, and they can see very well that the vast majority of children's authors they encounter have another, 'main' job which is very likely to just so happen to be one of the following:

- teacher
- librarian
- school librarian
- university lecturer
- book seller
- kindergarten teacher
- some other teaching thing
- more library-related stuff
- special needs educator
- some education-related stuff to do with books
- some book-related thing that has something to do with education

etc. Some, to be fair, are editors, freelance editors, publicists, or journalists...

I'm exaggerating, of course, but the situation is indeed comical: at book fairs, 'we' writers mostly talk about our books and our... students. Put two writers together and they'll doubtlessly talk about their teaching. 

So I like to rephrase that question. You don't need any degrees to be a writer, but most writers you meet are very likely to have very similar degrees and indeed quite similar professions. 

And then we think about it together. Why might it be that writers are so attracted to teaching? Or is it that teachers become attracted to writing? Or are both correlated with something else? What might that be? Does doing literary studies help you become a better writer? Or do you do literary studies because you're already interested in all things literary? Are all teachers frustrated writers? Are all librarians frustrated writers? Are all writers frustrated librarians?

Is your teacher secretly a writer?

(All gazes turn to the teacher, who generally vehemently rejects the accusation.)

Turns out diplomas don't matter, but you can still sneak in a lot of interesting sociological reflection. Including, if you want to push it as far as that with a dynamic group, why those 'other jobs' that writers do are so often, well, extremely middle-class (it's particularly striking in the French children's literature landscape, I think, though the term 'middle-class' has no easy equivalent in French). Cue reflection on what the writer-teacher-librarian association might, well, teach us about the social and cultural politics of writing and publishing today.

Then the question is answered by more questions being raised.

So I feel like I've done my teaching duty, and put my degrees to good use.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Well, I'm a teacher-librarian AND a children's writer, for which I refuse to apologise! I was writing before I started teaching and library work, but I know what children enjoy because I work with them. That's something the non-teacher-librarian doesn't have. ;-) And when I have a new book out and it's reviewed the kids find the review and show it to me. They nominate you for awards. They are so proud of their Miss! Doing a day job that doesn't take up any of your creative energy and isn't "middle class" does give you more time for writing, but you don't have the same interaction with your readers.

Susan Price said...

Sue B, I agree that your daily contact with children gives you an appreciation of what they enjoy and, indeed, the ways they speak and think that I don't have - and I see no reaaso at all why you should apologise for the good work you do as a teacher and librarian.

But it always was a great relief to me that you didn't need any qualifications or degrees to be a writer. If qualifications were necessary, I'm sure I wouldn't be one.

Ann Turnbull said...

It was always a great relief to me, too, Susan!

Clémentine Beauvais said...

I should perhaps have pointed out I'm myself a teacher.......... :p