This is it: “You can’t make a living as a writer.”
You would not believe how many of my young students have been told that — most of them perfectly good writers — and there is no bigger pile of hooey. Seriously, it’s hard to have a good career without being a good writer. A close second is that it matters a lot what your major is, and that you shouldn’t get a B.F.A. when you can get a B.A., because a B.A. is so much more respectable.
First of all, nobody cares what your bachelor’s degree is in, or what kind it is, unless you’re applying for a really specific graduate program or a job with a very tiny niche. I don’t know what the statistics are now, but when I was in college, fewer than 19% of college graduates ended up working in fields related to their bachelor’s degrees. Employers just care that you have a legitimate bachelor’s degree of some kind, so you might as well major in whatever you find interesting. It might lead you to a career, or it might just keep you curious for four years, or for life. Don’t, for the love of Jeebus, major in “business” unless you really do like it. It won’t help you get a job any more than any other major.
Ironically, when I made my decision to change my major, that 19% statistic encouraged me to go ahead and follow my instincts (because, hey, why not?), and I actually became part of the 19% as a result of that decision. When I decided to get a B.F.A. instead of a B.A., some people I talked to about it strongly advised against it. Over the past 21 years since I made that decision, though, nothing bad has ever come of it. To my knowledge, nobody has ever given a rip that I have a B.F.A. and not a B.A., and it made me a better writer, which has been a serious benefit throughout my adult life.
There really haven’t been too many bad situations that I couldn’t write my way out of. I got into graduate school, and managed to get up to speed in a ridiculously difficult program, because I could write. I’ve gotten more work writing and teaching writing than anything else I’ve ever done. At one point, I was averaging about $28 an hour in cash and prizes writing irate letters. One time when I really needed a lawyer, but didn’t have much money, the lawyer I really wanted agreed to take my case and make all kinds of payment arrangements because he said it was the best-written letter he had ever gotten. I have no idea where the hell I would be if I hadn’t focused on becoming a good writer in college, and learned how to do it professionally, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be pretty.
Okay, it’s difficult to make a living as a professional poet if that’s all the writing you’re willing to do. Which is not to say that it can’t be done, just that it takes a crazy amount of effort, and you’d need a day job in the meantime. I think part of being a good writer is being able to write in a lot of different styles, though. Writers and editors are always needed, and with more and more information coming out from everywhere all the time, there’s plenty of work. Sure, people will try to do it themselves for a while, but sooner or later, if they want their promotional materials or Internet presence to look professional, they’ll have to hire writers, or at least good editors, for their voluminous copy. Everybody’s copy is voluminous these days, too, because paying by the character and using printing presses are passe. Plus, most writing work these days can be done by Internet, so you can be a writer pretty much anywhere, and have clients everywhere. You just have to be proficient, self-promoting or well-connected enough to go out and find some work to get started (for which there are even websites these days), and willing to write or edit whatever needs to be written or edited.
So for those guidance counselors who said that you shouldn’t get a B.F.A. or that you couldn’t make a living as a writer, what the hell are their degrees like? Bachelor’s in psychology, master’s in education administration? A few of them, maybe, but most of those folks did not plan on being guidance counselors when they were growing up, or when they were in college. If there’s a specific career trajectory you think you’d like to follow, talk to the people who are out there doing it and find out what they really do and how they got there. Base your decision on that, not on what someone in a completely different line of work imagines they do, or what they think is the “normal” path for doing it. “Normal” career training paths are sort of like the “average” person — they’re a composite of a huge sample, and few single individuals really look like that. Really good guidance counselors can point you toward things and make suggestions, but to get the real skinny, ask some practitioners.
By all means, major in whatever interests you the most, and get whatever degree makes sense for you — just finish it. That’s all employers really care about, and you might as well enjoy the work you have to do to get there. That, and learn to be the best writer you can be.