Conventional Hell

I’ve always struggled with the idea of conventional education. Alongside editing my creative works, the education system has become the bane of my existence. I’ve forever had a love/hate relationship with classrooms. I love learning. I love to be challenged and increase my own intellectual prowess; I just don’t believe that the best way for me to do so is through university. The thought of writing pieces that are tailored to fit a marking sheet sends a shiver rolling down my spine. It seems incongruous to enroll in a course in creative writing only to have to stem the tides of my own creativity and start chasing grades instead. I’m stubborn as hell; you only have to read through a few of my posts to see that. And someone who wants to paint the world in glorious colour has no place in an educational system that promotes black and white.

I’m not knocking education in general. It’s really important that we make that distinction right here. University has its place in society. If I wanted to be a doctor, or a lawyer, exercise physiologist, or countless other professions then my progression through the tertiary education system would be an integral rite of passage. But when I am establishing a career out of my own creativity the process seems somewhat redundant; particularly for someone as headstrong as I am. There’s no one who understands the inner workings of my own mind like I do. And I resent someone grading something as personal as my creativity against the man or woman sitting next to me.

This is probably why I’ve racked up thousands of dollars worth of university debts across a number of partially completed degrees. I enrol, start off strong, and then eventually lose interest when assessments and classes pull me away from what I would rather be doing: writing. I’ve commenced and quit five separate university degrees, and right now I’m contemplating making it number six.

It hurts me to admit that I’m at this point again. I like to think that I am a resilient and adaptable man. I like to think that I am intelligent, and that I have the will and determination to see a task through to completion. When it comes to writing I push myself harder than anyone else ever could. I want to grow. I want to get better. And I want to finish a university degree for no other reason than to say that I didn’t give in. Because let’s be honest, a degree in writing doesn’t really equate to too much does it? I don’t want to be a journalist. I don’t want to be a copywriter. I just want to create literature. The most I’ll ever gain from my studies is an understanding of literature’s rules imparted onto the modern generation by all those who came before us. I’ll learn how the great minds of the past approached their craft. But if my successes so far have taught me anything it’s that rules are made to be broken.

I mean, how can someone manage to get a book put into print yet find it so difficult to adhere to something as simple as a study guide or assessment criteria? When I blog or write for myself I pour my heart and soul into what I do. I embrace vulnerability and allow my heart to bleed onto the page. Yet when I write at an academic level I have to be structured, restrained and ultimately boring. I remove the wondrous colours of a world that I’ve constructed in my head and leave behind the black and white outlines of a story that could have been great.

It sounds arrogant doesn’t it? I believe that I’m better than university right?

…Wrong. I just don’t gel with the classroom or the structure required to excel within it. When I was a kid my parents were so concerned with my lack of interest in writing and literature that they enrolled me in special education, those extra curricular activities for kids who are falling behind. But my problem wasn’t that I found literature boring: I just thought the way it was imparted upon my peers and I was pretty shit. Writing and art is about expressing oneself and breaking a piece down to the ridiculous where you know the text better than the author destroys the wonder within the words. I’ve carried this believe through to adulthood, creating university pieces that assessors have labeled vulgar, disgusting, and disturbing.

So here I sit, alone at my computer debating whether or not the graft of university studies is really worth the effort. If I was trying to do anything other than write creatively I would say most definitely. But when I’ve come so far already on my own should I bother writing to appease a lecturer? Or just keep building upon the momentum that I’ve gained and be the world eater who found publication all on his own? University is my Everest. It’s that goddamn elusive task that almost breaks me every time I try and climb it. Now I’ve got to decide if I truly need to mount this particular summit, or if simply creating a shoddy participation ribbon to mount on a mantle alongside my real achievements will suffice.

Author: Chris Nicholas

Chris Nicholas is an author from Brisbane, Australia. He has published two novels, and is currently working on his third.

39 thoughts on “Conventional Hell”

  1. For many years — the majority of my life — I have felt much the same way you do about the limitations of higher education when it comes to creativity and innovation. But through an exercise of patience and a few remarkable teachers, I finally discovered something: forcing myself to be creative within those academic constraints ultimately forged a much stronger writer. I went through years of rebellion, refusing to believe that my “talent” (such as it is) should be hedged in by ironclad rules of structure and form. But truly, I did experience an epiphany of sorts when I discovered that using the assignments as challenges — how to make them sound Luke ME? How to paint my own picture inside someone else’s frame? — made me better able to write anything I wanted with fewer struggles.
    Best of luck in your academic pursuits, or lack thereof. I understand your feelings all too well.

  2. By your logic , we don’t need universities for any Art such as painting – you take a paintbrush and start or acting – read dialogues and act or dancing – you stand in front of mirror and dance . BUT we have universities for everything above because you need to learn basics , history, nuances of the art before you chase the glory.

  3. As a teacher, I have seen kids who are creative and very intelligent, but bored out of their minds because they are not able to express their creativity within the four walls of a school or university. I have a friend who is very talented and told me that he was bored in school too. But some great teachers catered to what he was good at and encouraged his creativity!

  4. The reason I encouraged my kids form the start to get a degree even if they weren’t interested in University-type education per se, was to have a certificate that says you were able to do it.
    Later, when I realised that when my husband and I were thinking of Canada, just having a degree automatically gave me a full 60 points, whereas he had to hope his experience counted (despite he being a far more interesting “catch” for Canada than I was!), I was glad I did.
    A degree is just a way to say to the world: “There, see? I can if I want have the stamina and the constancy to get a degree done.”
    In Italy, JUST having a degree means they CANNOT pay you less than a certain amount. Which is a two-sided sword, since when I tried desperately to apply to simple jobs I was turned down for being overqualified.
    So, whereas I agree that the only great thing about my English and Spanish degree was meeting some amazing teachers and reading some amazing stuff I might not have been interested in otherwise, and the fun that was had, I find University education and the principles behind it very very limiting.
    It’s still worth doing though, and then filing it away in your drawer. May I ask which degree you are thinking of abandoning now? 🙂

  5. It’s all we have. This system isn’t the best but it’s what we’ve got to work with. The best advice I can give you is try and get started on writing your literature on the side… You could even write about it.
    You seem pretty passionate and obviously these experiences are inspiring you to write blog posts why not something bigger?
    People like to read things they can connect to, this is a huge topic where young people (and probably older too) feel the same.
    It might even help you enjoy university more. Take those barriers and bleed on to the page just how crippled it makes you feel. Then let your creativity lead you to a way of over coming your goal.
    I’d read that short story/novella/novel (whatever you make of it) any day!

  6. I agree up to a point. Writing is a very personal thing and no-one can teach you how you should write. I doubt whether many of our great writers ever did a course in it. But, you need to live; you need to convince others of your worth before it is recognised, you need to have experiences to fuel your writing. Perhaps you should try something completely different that you won’t get bored with that enables you to do your bit for the world, and allows the world to do its bit for you.

    1. I agree with this. I’m not a person who espouses a college education as the most important thing, and I don’t believe that writing can be “taught” necessarily. (However, this depends on the type of person you are. There’s no right OR WRONG way to write– if you write by learning convention and picking one that works for you, that’s fine too.)

      However, if you honestly love learning and you really want to complete a degree, try something not related to writing. I, myself, am an English major, which means I do a lot of reading and /academic/ writing, but it does not encroach on my creative writing nor try to pigeonhole it into some academic standard.

      It can be just as helpful for your creative writing to engross yourself in something you love to LEARN about, be it history or computer programming, as it would be to go off and search for your soul on a traveling binge or whatever.

      It’s all up to you, though! I am just convinced that the more you learn, through university or life, the better your fiction.

  7. I’ve wondered a similar thing about creative writing courses: is it worth the effort, stress, time and money to learn how other people think you should write, learn the rules of punctuation and grammar when everyone argues about them and has different ones. Also, most courses I’ve seen you have to do some amount of every type of writing, whatever your interest is. In the end I guess it depends: how much do you want the piece of paper that says you can do this? How great would you feel if you did finish, and are you going to feel even worse about yourself if you don’t? Do you think you can learn something – anything – useful? Are you ready to really commit to it and see it through? Personally I hate starting something and not finishing, whatever the outcome is.

    I love the passion that comes across in your writing, the intensity, and the few posts of yours I’ve read seem pretty well written to me. You say you’ve already published successfully, and you sound like you know what you want to write. So I guess my question for you would be: what do you think you’ll really get out of going to university and doing a creative writing course? Also, I don’t usually leave comments, but felt compelled to after reading this post. What does that tell you?

  8. I have similar feelings and experiences with the education system, as well as its approach to “creative writing.” After I completed my Associate’s Degree last year, I set the pursuit of a Bachelor’s Degree on the back burner so that I could start Meizius Publishing.
    Consider this: In my junior year of high school, I failed English class because my interpretations of creative pieces were “wrong” and my writing didn’t conform to the precise format that was required. But now, 18 years later, I am a published author and own a publishing company, with a dozen books published and new submissions flooding my inbox every day.
    Midas is a wonderful accomplishment, and you should be proud of the hard work and dedication it took to get to this point. If your education is important to you, then definitely plug away at your grades and get it done so that you have no regrets. But (and I’m not trying to dissuade you from continuing at university) you have to do some soul searching and find out what is truly important to you right now…maybe the answer is a balance of writing, family and university…maybe not. Maybe you should focus on one thing at a time. Only you can answer that, my friend.
    Either way, you have plenty of people wanting you to succeed, no matter what you choose to do.

  9. Not everyone is cut from the same fabric. If a formal education isn’t for you don’t go. There are thousands of examples of success in every facet of life for people who decided it wasn’t for them.
    For others it is. Find your own path.

  10. As someone who wanted to be a musician, but didn’t have the guts to tell conventional-thinking people to shove it and go off on my own, I’ve racked up FOUR university degrees, and I’m currently unemployed. I admire your stubbornness. If your heart’s not in it, then stop going to class. However, I will say that universities are great for building networks, so depending on how close you are to graduating, you may want to stick with it if the alumni network seems like it could be useful.

    Good luck with whatever you do!

  11. I used to teach high school Advance Placement English, which I couldn’t have accomplished without university studies. Did college classes help me write creatively? Not entirely. However, I did learn a great deal about structure, language and putting all the pieces together so that they make sense. I could have done that on my own, as I grew up with two teachers as parents. I have a fair grasp of the language and how to write correctly.

    I think what you need most to ask yourself is whether the degree is simply for its own sake, to justify the expense, or to really complete you in some other way. Admittedly, I enjoyed my time in college, meeting new people and having experiences I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Would you pursue it for the sake of learning and experiencing? Or are you pursuing a degree because you want to accomplish something? If this is the case, then you need to decide which of the fields of study most interests you and see it through.

    I’ve had this discussion with my eldest son, who has almost finished 3 different degrees… or is it 4? I’ve lost track. He is hoping to start his studies again in the fall, with the determination to finish at least ONE of them!

    Good luck in whatever you choose.

  12. I may share your enthusiasm for accomplishment. Especially as time wears on, you look at your list of accomplishments and start comparing them to others. I have often had the accolades of others who are amazed with whatever skill I am presenting, however, that skill rarely turns into a monetary benefit that is equal to the accolades.

    I can completely relate to the love/hate relationship you have with school. I have had the benefit of having a good teacher in grade school, once, so I knew they exist, and I knew I could do well if I had one.

    I can also relate to the dellima with college level history and literature and their rather generic expectations for mediocrity that borders on the blindly obtuse in it negation of a wholeistic perspective. Of course the most accurate assessment of a great majority of celebrated literature is going to be vulgar and inappropriate. Its not like these writers are famous for writing about how a flower blooms and never dies (unless its in relation to some perverted fetish).

    The truth of the matter is, not all teachers are created equal! This should come as some sort of comfort because the meaning behind these words are as sure to bring you some kind of hope in your endeavors, and if not, at least rid you of some amount of guilt.

    Ill give the example of a music major that I pursued for the sake of having something to pursue. My first teacher was an older man, with a buttleresque disposition that bordered on the arrogant. His idea of teaching a class was reading from a book. I kid you not, the whole lesson was spent with him reading word for word from this book, with slight interjections as time would allow.

    I took the class again with a different teacher(so I could null the c in the first class), who brought the musicians lives to life by emphasizing the improper and the vulgar lives of the artists. They were no longer some dead caricature playing randomly timed and spaced scales. I began to understand, through the musicians experiences and what their world was like, the emotions that had been invoked in them and their music. This was encouraged by our teacher who was very open to accepting things as they are, after all we are all adults, instead of the sugar coated arrogance of some who insist these great people are icons to be placed on a pedestal, with the limitation that one must not look to deeply, lest the truth take away from its greatness.

    I learned that I had to pick my professors, and you can tell in the first week if your professor if full of it, and it wont work out. If you are not compulsively taking in what the teacher is saying like a hawk takes in a field mouse, dont risk it. Ive never been able to bring my A+ game to a class that I HAD to do, when there was no other reason than I HAD to do it.

    So many people say settle or deal. I have found there are more options in life than just those two, mostly because Im to stubborn to quit trying. That is no fun at all. So no the big thing is sculpting my reality. Im a circular peg, that will not fit in a square hole. So instead of trying to play woodshop and turning myself into something that’s not quite a square, not quite a circle, Im searching for the circular holes in life. Then its easy!

  13. Hi Chris, one way to look at that degree stuff is simply as a set of tools and practice exercises. No one who graduates (me included) fits the ‘mould’ of the ideal student, or the ideal graduate. That’s a perception thing from an outsider looking in. People were individuals going in and they’re individuals coming out of tertiary education. Individuals with a comon set of tools and techniques. No one says you have to acquire the tools, although to work for an employer, you may require them, simpy to get the job.. Some people re-invent the wheel. Some people re-invent the wheel as a jet turbine. Or a catherine wheel, or a set of prosthetic legs. It’s your life, so live it well and choose what works for you.

  14. You have me beat by miles – I only did 3 colleges… Also no degree though , so that’s something, I suppose. It’s interesting you see University as your Everest, and I see University as my Inferno (thinking Dante here…)
    I decided that to finish a degree is paramount to saying “yes,, I can lower myself enough to let them triumph over me”. Not something I need to climb, something I need to avoid.
    I could say that finishing a degree would be like walking through Inferno and coming out unscathed. Except you don’t – you come out with their “diploma” – their seal upon your soul that they beat you at the game. (whatever the “game” is)
    I do have a question … if you’re “sculpting your reality” … does that mean if you come upon an oval hole that interests, you would chisel it out to be circular? I do like the analogies you pull and comparisons made.
    I had a teacher that read from a book. He taught Hebrews (yes, I was at a religious institution). But the book he read from was his own. And the word around campus was his jokes were the same every year because he penned them into his “manuscript”. I didn’t finish the class…
    Thank you for posting and sharing so much of your soul. Your ability to tear down the facade and step out as yourself is commendable. (assuming, of course, that it is truly you and not a grand scheme to fool… and yeah- -I have a negative outlook on most things)

  15. Climb your Everest as you see fit. It’s not about the achievement, it’s about the fact you’ve gone the distance and emerged on the other side, relatively, unscathed.

  16. I am reminded when I pursued an apprenticeship in an area I had already had some expertise, I was turned down. I did not have a degree. I was humiliated even further as she began to blatantly describe how many Master Degrees she had acquired. She certainly didn’t master humility! Go at your own pace. What’s more important than simply acquiring the degree is the education you gain from others and life’s experiences whether you are at a University or not. We were not all born with silver spoons in our mouths. Otherwise, I would be hosting my own web site instead of finding myself blogging. And, that has been a good thing, because it has been a learning experience. Things are meant to happen in their own time.

  17. This piece really resonates with me-particularly at this point in my life. I’ve struggled with the education system for most of my life. School stopped being fun for me somewhere around the age of 9 or so. School became nothing more than a series of standards, restrictions and rules. As a child, I loved to learn. School slowly sucked that joy out of me until I loathed every minute of my day. I think many of us have struggled with getting a degree, not because we aren’t capable of earning that little piece of paper, but because there’s a cognitive dissonance between what we’re passionate about and what the world requires of us. I understand your frustration with it all. It saddens me to think professors have labeled your work as ‘vulgar’; that to me is an egregious example of education squelching creativity. You’re obviously a dedicated person to be able to deal with such let downs. Don’t give up on what you want to do. I think it’s important to reflect on your actions in life often and to see whether or not those actions are in line with what makes you happy. How many years do we waste doing things simply because it’s what’s expected of us? How many of us let our dreams die? I often put myself down for not having completed school yet and constantly comparing myself to my peers has caused me to even contemplate just giving up and getting a degree in something I don’t even care about, just to say I finished. I finally realized that it’s okay that I’ve taken this long. Time has given me perspective on what’s really important in life and what’s not. That piece of paper is just that. It doesn’t define you or set your dreams in stone. I know it’s difficult to put your passion aside for the sake of education, but if the ultimate goal of a degree is what you want, sacrificing some of your creativity temporarily won’t change your talent or your voice. I hope you find what makes you happy. 🙂

  18. Wow, it’s like the words escaped my thoughts. This is literally why three years ago, after submitting my first paper as an English major and getting it back with a slaughtering to my creativity, I changed my major. You’re certainly not alone in your thoughts and I along with many others applaud you for trying so many times and continuing to consider taking Everest.

  19. It sounds like you already have your mind made up and are just trying to justify your decision. Stop being motivated by guilt. I was momentarily concerned that you didn’t agree with a conventional education, because FOR ME it is becoming a catalyst for wherever my life is going to be launched and has become an incredible tool for helping mold the changes I’ve made in my life as of late. But it’s clear you don’t feel negatively about education. It makes me sad to hear that you’re struggling so much with this decision and that you are feeling SO CONSTRAINED. I encourage you to only allow the negative aspects and feedback fuel the fire inside you even more. Good things come from ALL SITUATIONS, even difficult ones. It’s all about perspective. I really like your blog. It’s exposing me, as a writer, to things I’ve not only never considered, but also to good writing from someone my age. You have a very eloquent voice, and dictate well through your words. Despite the struggle I’ve just read about, it’s a pleasure to read what it is you write.

  20. A degree doesn’t guarantee success. The curriculum, however, may open your mind to other influences and influencers. When you have a story to tell write it, read and adapt it, and then give it to someone who is interested in your genre so that they can give you a fair critique.

    Persevere if you are a really passionate writer. Remember JK Rowling. She received numerous rejections from literary agents, and only one of 12 publishers wanted to print her first Harry Potter story.

  21. To me, the point of university is to open and broaden your mind. It is to challenge the conventional. But in order to be able to challenge the conventional, you must first know and understand what it is. You may be creative, but being creative does not mean you are talented. Being talented is being able to allow your strength and creativity to shine even through structured obstacles. By simply trying to understand another perspective (be that of a man or institution) we are already opening ourselves up to a whole new world of possibilities and ideas. Also, subconsciously even though we don’t really see it, we constantly borrow thoughts and ideas, ways of writing etc from what we see around us.

    For example, Hunter S Thompson used to retype novels in order to understand their flow and in order to define his own style of writing.

    In general we should not see university as a stifling of creativity but only a perfect opportunity to taste test and dabble in trying to mimic the greats, that way we can become stronger creatives in our own rights.

  22. Chris I love this piece. I really like your writing and all that you said. I am right there with you on all fronts. I am an autodidact. A fellow creative, independent, politely rebellious type. My oldest son didn’t fit the system so we did “un”school for 7 yrs after 5 yrs of public school. My youngest spent most of his hours outside building treehouses, drawing, creating, daydreaming, and building with legos. He went to public school – 8th grade after only going to school his kindergarten year. He did great. Everyone thinks he is 18 not 14. No one to look over his shoulder with a red pen for 7 formative years while he learned all the time. Mostly only he was the one to know what he was learning. As you mentioned something similar. So we all are creative independent thinkers. My older son is struggling with deciding about college as he wants what is at the end but still doesn’t enjoy the system. It’s a tough call.
    I am struggling with whether or not I want to go back to school. Struggling with the same concerns you have. My writing is my soul and I am not sure I want to mold that into what someone else wants….but I also love to learn and learning with others in an interactive creative collaboration manner appeals to mean, generating insights and understanding with each other through discussion….
    Anyway…initially I got on here to tell you thanks for the Likes on my blog learningtocry but got so drawn into your writing.
    Thanks for sharing your views on education and creativity and for the your style.
    Peace to you in your decision and continued evolution.
    Not editing. Hope it makes sense…have to go fix my sick son some soup!

  23. Don’t worry, you’re not alone in this line of thinking. I dropped out of school at 16 simply because I couldn’t function properly in a classroom setting. My attention span is too finicky.

    But it is needed for most of society. The fact is that not all of us are stellar writers who can cultivate followings of hundreds or thousands. Not all of us are that cool, after all.

    Just some food for thought.

  24. Nice post. You have an awesome blog, do you mind checking mine out? I’ll share mine yours if you share mine, I’m trying to get more exposure. Feel free to follow me on Twitter @MJJLover97

  25. I have found myself in the same position. I started University with a lot of motivation and strong work ethic, but much like you I struggle to fit in to the classroom environment. I’ve never read a post I connect to more, I was not good at English at school and have been struggling with university because I find it boring. As you said when I write on my blog or notebook I am writing for ME and pouring my heart out.

  26. I was a high school art teacher in an independent school for 7 years, and I found it really frustrating. I would have ridiculously creative kids who lacked technical skill, and technically-savvy students who had a hard time mining their imaginations. It was hell to mark them. Eventually, I stopped teaching. It’s so subjective. And some of those highly creative kids just needed a different medium to be able to express their work. Who was I to give an impressionable young person a “pass” or “fail?” So yeah, I’m a big fan of “the school of life” when it comes to art.

  27. Autodidact here. High five through the computer screen. Too much education can be a bad thing. It kills or natural creative flow and becomes the inner critic that keeps us in the stands instead of down on the starting line, geeked about running our own race.

  28. I can remember when my passion for writing began to fade … it was the same year I received the “required reading list” assignment. We weren’t moved by words, we were limited by them, and by the teachers who were forced to adhere to the standards. People aren’t standard, and the method currently used by most teachers is just that – standardized.

    I would say you’ve done quite well with whatever pieces of education you’ve collected thus far, but I also think more education is never a bad thing 😉

  29. Yes. Yes yes yes yes YES. I just switched majors for the…fifth(?) time in three years, have a string of classes under my belt that don’t count for shit, and am barely a fraction closer to a degree than I was before college. When bemoaning the difficulty in choosing a degree people say, “You love writing. Why not study that?” It’s hard for me to explain what you’ve said here so succinctly: I don’t want my creations judged against classmates, and I don’t write for a grade! Some styles of writing just don’t mesh with the classroom.

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