Today on the particular Howard Stern show to which I was listening (from a few months ago), the staffers were discussing the value of an English degree. The old theory – if you know how to write, you can go work in any number of industries. Believe it or not from the stuff that’s written here, companies have been actually paying me to write for the last decade and a half.
I’ve worked almost exclusively in the financial-service world – stocks, mutual funds, economic madness – despite having no formal training on any of it. My first boss back in1997 often said, “It’s easier to teach a good writer about the financial business than to teach a financial professional to write.” As someone who has proofread and edited the writings of financial professionals as a freelance gig, I can believe this statement 100%.
And yet, all this (at least the English majoring part) was almost a happy accident. I entered college wanting to be a broadcast journalist, which in retrospect is strange because I hate extemporaneously speaking and sort of dislike my cadence. The university I’d chosen didn’t have a communications major, per se, so I signed up for some English, history, and sociology courses. To feed my yen for broadcasting, I got settled in at the university radio station.
Side note: this station played Top-40 music. I managed to find the only “college” station that didn’t seek out up-and-coming indie/alternative acts. My junior year (or, as they said at UVa, my “third year”), the station switched to a classic rock format, which was even more off the mark – at least Top 40 had been playing early(ish) Green Day and late Nirvana.
I contemplated doing the undergrad-business/commerce school thing but a couple of economic courses proved that wouldn’t be a good fit for my right brain. My Dad has his PhD in English and my uncle and grandmother studied the field as well, so I did feel an unavoidable genetic pull toward the land of Chaucer, Faulkner, and Joyce. Ohhh, my.
But the decision was effectively made for me one drunken fall night. I was 19, a college sophomore (“second year”) living in off-campus but University-run housing. I also had a bit of a crush on my Graduate Resident Advisor who oversaw about six buildings and 120 students. Ergo, not a close relationship like a typical RA can be. He had chin-length floppy hair, a chain-smoking habit, and a girlfriend, but I was still pretty schoolgirl about him for one brief shining (and delusional) moment. So much so that, egged on by my friends one night, I left a desperate 5:00 am message asking him to swing by – I needed his assistance! (Exclamation point!)
In the sober light of day, I realized I needed a reason for this request. I remembered he was, in fact, getting his Masters’ in English and I used that as my excuse for soliciting his assistance. “I’m thinking of being an English major,” I said (and it wasn’t exactly a lie). “Any pointers?” He was nice enough to take an hour from his smoking habit and his girlfriend to tell me the pros and the cons.
Fearing he’d be wise to me if I ever selected a different major (as though he’d ever know, anyway), I committed to 2-1/2 years of reading and writing. I wasn’t good at some things (holding my own in discussion sections about Shakespeare’s histories – again with the extemporaneous speaking) but I did okay at others (analysis of Peter Shaffer’s f*cked-up universe).
15 years after college graduation, the chance to occasionally write on the job is what makes me happiest. I’ve so far made an okay living at translating the difficult or mundane into accessible language for the masses. It’s not sexy, but I’m not bad at it. So perhaps the most important thing I’ve ever written was that note on GA Jason’s dry-erase whiteboard so many years ago. Who says nothing good can happen at 5:00 am after 12 Milwaukee’s Best Lights?