And why I had to unlearn all of them to become a writer
I, too, majored in English. I've never regretted it. Yes, I can make things sound better than they are, but I try to restrain that urge and just tell the truth. But when people question WHY anyone would want an English major I offer 2 main reasons: (1) most people don't know how to communicate clearly and you need us to help you (especially engineers), (2) English majors make great project managers because we think clearly, logically and thoroughly and then communicate that well. Oh, and I double majored: Philosophy was my other. The pursuit of wisdom. My first, middle and last motivation for pretty much everything. At 76, still young and inquisitive and ... almost innocent. Thanks for a great essay.
"There’s just one tiny problem: The people who master the Old Switcheroo are batshit crazy and have a psychological profile dangerously close to that of a serial killer."
But what if they were in fact Saints and the Only Sane Ones in a World Gone Mad? This paper has four parts:
You're not jut a good writer; you're funny as hell!
Are we the same person? Aside from the Music->English route (I was Education -> English, and now work as a software developer) so much of this experience sounds eerily similar.
I taught software development for a few years, and I would start every class with some variation of "approach things with a child-like mind, you'll learn more." So, I agree with you, "if you do retain this childlike quality, you not only have a more interesting life. You’re also more useful to the world."
Here's the English Majors, and here's to those of us who spend every day NOT "growing up" so that we can live interesting, useful, lives! Cheers!
People are so strange. Everyone always acts like writing is useless and doesn’t aid society in any way, as if writing is just some trashy thing you do for fun, and the serious stuff is business, the medical industry, the law, etc.
You realize the Declaration of Independence is a WRITTEN document? How bout the U.S. Constitution? What about every bill that passes through congress? How about every law on the books?
That’s. Called. Writing.
‘Sincere American Writing’
I am a big believer in STEM, but I am also a big believer in the fine arts and literature.
Great scientific writing is the telling of a novel, interesting, and compelling nonfiction story.
Best said in this quote.
“Science is built up of facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.”
Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)
Thanks for the insight!
I had a similar experience, some 45 years ago, interviewing with a major film studio. At the time I had two bachelor degrees, in music and film. The interviewer, a branch manager in a key city, was originally from Chicago. He'd picked me up in his car as I didn't have one at the time. He was being tailgated and at the first stoplight, got out with a crowbar and threatened the driver behind us. Nothing happened, but that set the tone for the interview. I got the job, then was called into his office and told three things: 1.) don't tell anyone you went to college and have film and music degrees, 2.) you have one week vacation a year, but I suggest you don't take it if you want to amount to anything, and 3.) if you're not getting sued, you're not doing your job.
I later went to get my MFA in creative writing. And never worked for film studio again.
Ted, there was a variant of C & C that worked 60 years ago. Enter College with a fair understanding of a worthy but recondite literature the profs know only superficially. Then milk it. Thus, at Columbia in the 1960 I linked everything to vernacular literature of the Dark Ages. Such luminaries as Lionel Trilling, F W Dupree drew a blank on this stuff, and I managed A- on enough papers to enjoy a low stress senior faculty position for 40 years. Obviously GRR Martin did a lot better, but then he's a genius. Chu Berry, anyone?
I love this. When I was in school, we had to write these four types of papers, but we were also assigned to read Zinsser, who basically gives this same advice (write with curiosity, ask questions, write to learn, etc). His book “On Writing Well” changed my life, as he was giving guidance that I didn’t hear from any of my professors. That’s when I realized that school only teaches you how to follow ‘the rubric.’ A valuable skill, sure! But it doesn’t teach you to be a great writer.
As some of the smarter people around me say: stay curious.
The question posed—"Why would anyone major in English?"—reveals the lack of that which you can gain (or strengthen) by studying literature: cognitive empathy: the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes.
I'm sure you do know that Frankenstein is not the monster but the doctor.
I am a software developer for a living who has never taken a computer class. What I do have is a master’s degree in music theory/composition. No programming challenge I have ever come across has come close to trying to write a four-part, Bach-style fugue or writing well for full orchestra.
The difference between that and an English major, is that it’s too abstract for them to even judge you! So it’s not an issue, but also not a benefit.
Nothing has taught me more or prepared me better than my training as a musician and composer under the direction of excellent mentors.
I have only read a couple of Ted's articles and am already a huge fan. There's something really refreshing, these days, in having a writer get to the point, his OWN point, instead of simply rehashing the usual drivel. I've read perhaps more classic literature than is good for me, and Ted fits right in. In fact, he has bit of a Laurence Sterne flair, as seen in "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman."
Yes, I, too, was an English major. No, I never did anything with it professionally.
You forgot one, Ted: Mad Magazine's "Rewriting Your Way To a PhD"!
Thanks, Ted! By the time I was a college Sophomore, I’d gotten so used to the scorning comments from my classmates,to wit: “oh Muriel!” To the condescending remarks from professors along the lines of “that’s very interesting, dear.” The lines of my pronouncements ran along the lines of : That I could look at a tree outside the classroom window, and, in wanting to be out side climbing that tree, FEEL the bark in the nerves of my fingertips, or call up the scent of a horse or a rose at will. I was told that what I was asserting was impossible. Hard to prove something like this. Is there a scientific name for being able to call up the sense “replay” at will? So much of my writing seems to benefit from this “sense memory”, or is it vivid imagination? Yeah, I was a triple major by the time I graduated after dropping out for 17 years: English Lit, Studio Art+Commercial Art, and Psychology (concentration on Maslow ( for Commercial Art link).