What Do You Do With An English Major?

My college roommate Gloria used to sing the above title to the tune of “What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?”  It was not encouraging.  Especially considering the point of college is that you prepare for the rest of your life, and here I’d gotten one of the least pragmatic college degrees known to man.  I mean, seriously, WHY DID I GET A DEGREE FOR MY HOBBY?!

By the time college was over, I’d become someone who never sought out practicality, or maybe I’d just convinced myself of this because having an English degree is so very not practical.  I may never do anything with my degree vocationally (hatred of “the red pen life,” remember), but what I chose to study was what I wanted to know more about, so I’m satisfied.  I became more eclectic, if nothing else.  I opened up to new ideas.  I discovered through trial and error what systems/methods did and did not work for me creatively (ahem, Creative Writing class).  If this is all the fulfillment I ever get out of my college degree, I am fine with that.

But what DO you do with an English major? On the practical side, I guess that, working as a medical transcriptionist, I use my English skills probably more than I realized.  Doctors are smart people, but they make up words and they make up grammar.  They also pronounce “mary-jew-annah” and have slip-ups like “asthma exasterbation.”  So, I guess general skills of communication can come in handy in any job. However, my English degree is mostly useful for non-practical reasons.

Use #1 – Being a Book Snob

Let’s face it – I was probably a book snob long before college because I think my taste is superior to most people’s.  However, now I have a diploma.  I love Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Kierkegaard, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Edgar Allan Poe, Annie Dillard, Edith Wharton, Madeline L’Engle, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Orson Scott Card, Jeffrey Archer, Billy Collins, etc.  I hate Moby Dick, Walt Whitman, and most Christian fiction.

Let me defend that last one. The reason my own Kota series is not blatantly Christian is because I don’t want it to be lumped in as just another Christian book series – which is awful to say, but.  Much of Christian fiction out there just doesn’t feel…connected to reality.  It’s watered down so the general Christian audience won’t be offended or won’t have to think, in my opinion.  The most effective “Christian” stories use dark, bad, sinful elements to show the need for God’s grace (hello, Senior Seminar paper on Flannery O’Connor).  Evil, hate, and filth are real, and unfortunately many Christian artists seem to ignore this as they present a fake, flaky, sappy story of salvation.  And the bad guys are always from the Middle East.  As a genre, Christian fiction just makes me roll my eyes and wish for better.  There are exceptions, but whenever I hear the “Christian fiction” label, I am immediately turned off, and I’m sure I’m not alone.  As Christian storytellers, I think we have to show the real world, in all its ugly wonderful dimensions, in order for our stories to resonate with readers who know that life is more complex than is often portrayed in Christian fiction.

 Use #2 – Being a Better Reader

All the literature I read in college undoubtedly affected my story-processing powers.  I feel like I have an insider’s perspective whenever I invest in a story, and I love that.  To me, Story is like nourishment – I don’t know if that is because I have a major need for escapism or what.  My education gave me the ability to understand stories on a deeper level.  I now see themes, styles of writing, historical contexts, and “intertextuality” in books that I’ve read a dozen times without ever noticing these things before.  Quotes, terms, etc. pop into my head when I need them.  Mostly, I’ve gained what Prof Landrum was talking about when he said, “Some people read, and some people read books.  I’m going to teach you to read books.” And, I’ve held to what I realized freshman year in Intro to Lit – “I love seeing how people create.”

 Use #3 – Being a Better Writer

I’ve written 4 novels, so that is almost a practical application of my education…right?  Seriously, I love that I am a writer – there are some things common to all writers.  To steal from Jeff Foxworthy, it might sound like this:

  • If you like the idea of sharing yourself but don’t want to be in the spotlight, you might be a writer.
  • If you spend more time in a fantasy world than you do in the real world, you might be a writer.
  • If you shriek with joy when an idea comes to you and run for the nearest notepad, you might be a writer.

I absolutely fell in platonic love with Donald Miller while reading Blue Like Jazz because he talked about a time when he was reading a novel and got so jealous that the person had written a novel that he threw the book across the room.  (Personally, I keep Poetic Meter & Poetic Form handy as my “throwing book” because it’s easy to channel all my hatred into.)  So, at the very least, I like being a writer because it means I’m not alone in my neurosis.

When I sent my first book to be self-published, I was a nervous wreck because I realized – very, very slowly – that people would read it.  This seems an incredibly stupid epiphany, I know.  It’s just that the Kota story had been a part of my life for so long that I’d forgotten people didn’t know about this basic ingredient of my life.  Few people at the time knew that I wrote fiction at all.  I was initially a wreck because I was letting go of my baby after sheltering it secretly for over a decade.  I was exposing myself.

Then the book came out.  “Firstborn offspring of my feeble mind.” Honestly, I never should have attempted publishing a novel and graduating from college simultaneously…or, I wish I’d focused less on graduating.  Also, because I didn’t really know what I was doing yet, I left out a LOT of what had always been a part of this story that I’d been working on since I was nine.  I don’t know why I didn’t flesh it out more – maybe I was afraid of length.  Looking back, it’s shocking The Kota: Book 1 was accepted so well.  But I’m also perfectly willing to admit that a 21-year-old girl finishing college does not know everything about writing yet.  It could have been better, but at the time I didn’t know how.  NOW, over a decade later and three other novels later, NOW is oddly the time when I’m capable of doing my first novel the right way, and that’s why I’ve rewritten The Kota: Book 1 so that it will be released as an eBook later this spring.  This time, I’m completely happy with it.

Holy crap, I look young.
Holy crap, I look young.

In any case, while writing Books 2-4, the “fame” of being an author set in.  At first, I wanted to run and hide whenever someone found out I had a novel published.  I don’t like being the center of attention.  Ever.  My father was quite proud of me – and I’m grateful – but I felt myself shrink back whenever he introduced me to people and just happened to throw in that I’d written a book.  The staff at ACS (my high school) was incredibly proud of me, as if I was some kind of shining beacon of accomplishment for the school…  Irony.  Everywhere, whenever anyone got that “wow” look on their face, I felt like a deer in the headlights – no, probably a smaller animal, like a raccoon.

Only gradually did I learn to handle the attention.  The thing that really started me liking it was when I realized I could talk about the experience of Story.  (Is my nerd showing?)  More than once my friends and I have been talking about an author’s motivations, inspirations, etc. and I’ve chipped in (with a notable chip on my shoulder) by saying, “Well, when I am writing a novel…” I LOVE exploring different people’s creative processes, and I like having my own experiences to share and compare.  I like helping people stir their own creative juices and inspiring their creativity.  I once spoke to a group of students at Lakeview High School, and it was great – and more than a little weird – to be able to stare out at the young faces staring back at me as I spoke about how I had created my story.

(Sidenote: However, there was a moment when I thought of Kathy Bates in Misery because one girl came up to me and said, “I am your number one fan!” I also was asked, “Do you know Terry Brookes?” I nearly laughed, “I know of him.”)

All around, I’m still never sure how to react when people are amazed that I’ve written four novels.  I worked on these stories for over a decade before anyone knew about them, so I don’t think it is anything incredible that someone “so young” has written a full-length novel or two.  Is it really a big deal?  At a friend’s house, I once laughingly picked my book off his shelf and heard him launch into an explanation of my author status to one of his friends.  My friend’s friend’s boyfriend said of his boyfriend, “Oh, he is so envious.  He wants to write a book.” The boyfriend said, “No, I’m not envious.  I just think more people should do it.”  That is exactly what I think.

Ironically, I also frequently forget that I’ve even written books. One new coworker once told me, “I entered your name on Google, and did you know there is an author with your name?” I admit I said, “Really?” before remembering, “Oh, yeah. That is me.”  I really do flat out forget because writing is just something I’ve always done, and having my books published is just another part of that.  Which might seem ridiculous, I know.  My dear friend Justin told me, “Are you kidding? I would drop that all the time!”

 Use #4 – Being an Experienced, Knowledgeable Source of Advice

So, all this leads here.  The most useful thing I can do with my college degree and my experience with writing is that I can “pay it forward” with whatever little pearls of wisdom I can muster (or maybe the analogy is closer if I say my advice is like chunks of sand some coughing oyster has spit up).

  • Use your experience.  This is said all the time, but it really is true.  It also sounds ridiculous coming from someone who writes science fiction about time-travel, zombie viruses, mutations, space-travel, etc., but bear with me – it does make sense.
    It’s a given that The Kota Series idea came from Christian, Kaly, Luke, and my childhood playtime, but there’s so much more to it.  Mainly, I think the wisest advice I ever heard was what my Aunt Sharon’s friend told her:  “Never waste a bad experience, write about it.”  All of my psychosis was valuable fodder for my alter-ego character of Bullseye/Kynacoba – her growth was also largely my growth as I went along, and I took it out on her.  Unless you’re blind, the Dominion is a clear representation of my time in high school and how that place haunted me just as the Dominion haunted Bullseye/Kynacoba.  Also, Kynacoba healed by learning to change on Ebon; I healed by learning to change at Cornerstone with Elise as my personal Cliqani.  Kynacoba found she liked life on Phantasya; I found I liked life after college.  She found what she wanted out of the rest of her life on Zenith; I figured out what I wanted in that post-post college phase.
    It is scary to use your own personal flaws in your characters – much easier to use your strengths – but you know you better than you are ever going to know anyone else, so why not use that insider knowledge? If nothing else, it is super cathartic – the parts of the story that involve Kynacoba hold more meaning for me that I can probably explain.  Anyway, characters automatically become more real when you use reality in shaping them.
  • Dig.  You can start with the simplest story in the world – say, four kids saving the world – and turn it into something truly deep and far-reaching by digging for elements to add.  I’ve already explained using your personal life to strengthen your story.  On top of this, use history.  Use literature.  Dig.  The same old themes, plots, and types of characters pop up time and again, and what parts of these truths fit with your story? I’m not saying you should copy history or others’ stories, but what is there that you can draw from to enrich your own story? Basically, find sources of inspiration.  (I can’t tell you how many of my notes were made during college courses.  Sometimes the professor would say something and my brain would suddenly make a useful connection with my own story.  Doodling is not always unproductive.)
  • Talk about your story.  It’s amazing what things you think are included but really aren’t there at all.  When you talk about your story with long-suffering friends, some things stand out as important – things you might never have put much thought into because they are so subconsciously basic in your mind.  I used to fear other people’s suggestions and perspectives on my story because I didn’t want to change my story for anything, but now I’ve calmed down and loosened my grip enough to see that outside input is a good thing.  My friend Miranda sat with me for hours– saint that she is – and discussed the themes, character development, and basic plot structures of the third Kota book before she’d ever read it.  I cannot stress enough the value of hashing out your ideas with someone who is completely fresh to the story you are working on.
  • Let go of the reins.  (Who is it that talks about listening to your broccoli?) Let your story steer you.  Let characters behave and talk for themselves. It sounds ridiculous considering they don’t really exist, but letting a character develop through their particular motivations and quirks can lead you to places you never expected.  Try to keep control of your unruly offspring, but sometimes you have to lift your hands from the keyboard and take a timeout to re-find where your story is taking you.  What accidentally comes out of you might prove better than anything you plan.  Sometimes you have to let go of your plan and go with the accident because it’s just better.
  • Read your “final” draft aloud to someone.  Quentin Tarantino talked about this in his Golden Globes acceptance speech this past year.  You may have to get out the duct tape and strap them to a chair, but find a listener.  The main benefit of reading aloud is that your own ear is sharpened.  It is amazing how some parts sound good on paper and some don’t.  Actually, a lot don’t, but you won’t figure this out unless audibly going over these parts.  Some lines of dialogue sound terrible when really spoken, and you can always find a way to shorten and sharpen with a listening ear in the room.  Much better to fix your final draft before it really becomes final.

So, there ya have it.  What do I do with my English major?  I use it for my hobby.  But I do know what I’m talking about, if you’re able to corner me and make me babble coherently.

5 thoughts on “What Do You Do With An English Major?

Add yours

  1. Well said. As a former English who currently work in sales I couldn’t have said it better myself. I still have people who give me a hard time about majoring in English (parents…) But still the best decision I ever made. Thanks for writing this. Great post!

  2. You once explained to me the difference between proofing and editing. Editing comment on this piece: In the sentence “My father WAS quite proud of me – …”, the verb most definitely should be “IS”!

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