When I was in high school, I thought many of my classes were useless. I wanted nothing more than to write all the time every day (and I usually did. I once filled three small notebooks with one story. Ah, those were the days). I’d often write during class and I only got caught once or twice. Back then, I saw little value in classes like Math or Tech Ed or Biology, especially if they were difficult (don’t even get me started on my Physics class junior year). I didn’t even see the point in Journalism. All I wanted to do was write my stories and take more writing classes. Nothing more and nothing less.
Thankfully, I grew a brain. By my senior year, I started developing a passion for literature and an increasing interest in analysis. I figured that if I understood the way successful, published novels work, then I could incorporate some of those techniques into my own stories. I also began to understand that the more diverse my reading material, the more original ideas I’d come up with. This mindset suited me just fine throughout most of my college career. Obviously, I enjoyed my literature and writing classes, but I still had to sit through required courses that I didn’t think could do much for my writing. Ironically, I’m now convinced that the most useful classes for writers to take aren’t writing classes.
Don’t get me wrong. Writing classes are certainly essential components of a writer’s education. I’ve learned of plenty of new forms and techniques through the many classes I’ve taken (and the many articles I’ve read online). However, I think that all writers eventually come to a point where they’ve taken so many classes or done so much on their own that classes simply don’t do too much for them. I realized last semester that I’ve reached this point after taking poetry, short fiction, and drama classes, not to mention all of my lit classes, the studying I’ve done on my own, and the fact that I’ve been writing stories since I first learned how to write. There is only so much focus you can have on writing itself. I’m not saying that I’m the best writer ever or even that I’m prominent enough to have any sort of authority in the matter. I’m not saying that I can’t improve because I know that there are plenty of aspects of writing that I need to fix up and plenty of techniques I can learn about.
What I am saying is that I’m finding that those weird classes–the ones that are about a thousand degrees away from writing classes or any class in the English department–give writers the well-roundedness they need to understand people in all of their complexities. For example, I took a Computer Science class last fall to fulfill my non-lab science requirement. It was mostly basic HTML and Java Script–nothing too complicated, although the work was tedious at times. I didn’t give it much thought the next semester until I found some of the basic concepts I learned in that class creeping into the world of one my stories and specifically the interests of one of my characters. I was used to parts of characters and plot lines from other stories I’d encountered suddenly showing up in one of my own projects, but never anything so far removed from my creative pool as a computer class. The revelation was surprising, but also delightful. Even though I had mostly met my gen. ed. requirements by last spring, I still began to see my classes differently, especially the ones that weren’t English classes. I saw that the diversity I was encountering in those “outside” classes would ultimately translate into a greater diversity in characters and story lines. This helped me make the choice to take Geography as an elective this semester instead of another writing class.
In fact, if you’re a fantasy writer especially, Geography is one of the most useful fields you can study. I figured that if I’m going to be creating worlds, I needed to know how this one is laid out, how people unite and divide themselves, how populations change, how languages are spread out, and a multitude of other factors. This to me seemed more useful than taking another class where I learned to put the same basic concepts of writing into yet another form. Also, my school has a very limited number of writing classes, so that’s part of the issue as well.
Loading up on English classes is fine and dandy, but taking a science class or another class that’s completely out of the blue will force you to think differently, at least for a little while. The more well-rounded you are as a person, the more unique you can become as a writer.