Right about now, graduate students are in the home stretch. That diploma will soon be theirs, along with extra letters to tack behind their names, representing a mastery of a prescribed set of skills and knowledge. But, a few will be granted those extra letters because their life skills are deemed equivalent to those obtained in the classroom: an honorary degree.
I want one.
Hear me out, oh lofty department heads. This is my pitch, my thesis, for my master’s degree in short nonfiction. In other words, columns. I grew up studying the masters. Erma Bombeck. Dave Barry. Molly Ivins. Bob Dunning. And not on my laptop or iPhone, oh no! Old-school style — on newsprint, with blackened fingertips and the heady, aromatic blend of black coffee and ink in my nostrils. And I liked it. It made me tough. I wrote my first column on a typewriter. Without White Out. That’s living on the edge, boys and girls.
Oddly enough, I didn’t major in English at UC Davis, even though I’d initially declared that I would. The lure of psychology was too powerful. People and what makes them tick, and most of all, why … so seductive. I still took writing classes, but I was focused on Jung and Skinner and Perls. One semester, I applied for a writing class with a visiting author/professor… Alice Adams, I believe it was, but through the haze of time and waning hormones, I’m not certain. What is certain, however, is that I wasn’t selected for the class. Why? I wasn’t an English major. English majors got priority, and the class had more applicants than seats.
I took Personality Theory instead. I got an A. But it still bugs me. The rejection was so arbitrary. Consider this: Who will craft the more interesting story: the one who studies what makes people tick and why, and writes about it, or the one who studies what other people have already written about what makes people tick and why.
Anyway. Back to my pitch.
After college, I entered the social services field, one of the psychology majors lucky enough not to get stuck with a “You want fries with that, Ma’am?” job, and spent about 10 years seeing what makes people tick and why in action, and one random day noticed Bob Dunning’s annual columnist contest in the Enterprise. I typed something up. Yes, without White Out. It was all or nothing. My one shot. My “8 Mile.” And he picked me.
That was the beginning of the end of my social services career. I started writing a weekly column for free in a new, up-and-coming newspaper that was challenging the Winters Express. After eight months, I asked them to pay me and they wouldn’t. So, out of spite (which fuels all truly great career leaps) I got a job as the Express editor. Within one year, we crushed them. The Valley Tribune was dead. I laughed at the corpse.
Since then, I’ve honed my skills on the job, learned to use words to make people laugh, or cry, or want to stomp down to the office and punch me in the neck. I’ve learned that writing columns isn’t about expressing opinions. It’s about expressing them in a calculated way, for a particular reaction. Week after week after week. I’ve learned that good columnists know what to put into their columns. Great columnists know what to weed out. Rather than submit to punctuation and rules, as we must in an English Composition class, I’ve learned to play with them. If you can’t have fun with words, what’s the point, really?
So. Short nonfiction. Column writing. Yes. I’ve mastered it. I have a stack of award plaques to validate that claim. I’ve had the honor of being a writing judge for both the Academic Decathlon and the California Newspaper Publishers Association for years. So, you see, professionals have acknowledged my expertise. But not the ones who can tack those extra letters behind my name.
Oh, sure, I could just go apply to a master’s degree program. But how am I going to make that happen when I’m working two jobs and running an online syndicate, and between all of them, making the “You want fries with that” wages of my post-college years? There’s no time and there’s no income to make it happen. Besides, what will a master’s program teach me? To do what I’m already doing? I Googled the requirements for an M.A. in short nonfiction. Besides a certain number of classroom hours, one program required “producing a thesis that might be considered for publication.”
(Department Head) Dude. Considered for publication? I’ve actually been published, every week, for 21 years. That’s 1,092 columns. Even when I was sad, or sick, or dissolving in anxiety, or merely tragically uninspired… the column must come out. And each one took time. How many class hours does that represent? Four semesters and then some, I’ll tell you that much.
Another requirement for a master’s degree is teaching. Done. When a colleague of mine and I formed iPinion Syndicate, and started gathering our stable of wonderful columnists and bloggers, I discovered a new talent: spotting writers who didn’t know they were. Maybe it’s an email. Maybe it was a blog or Facebook post. Maybe a letter to the editor, or just listening to a conversation that begged to be put on paper. I can spot a diamond among pebbles like an eagle spots a field mouse. And, working with those diamonds, chiseling, polishing, and ultimately seeing them sparkle on their own — truly, this is more satisfying than my stack o’ plaques.
But not as much as an honorary degree.
OK, no, not really.
But almost. And I promise this much: If some open-minded department head grants it to me and invites me to do that visiting writer/professor stint, I won’t kick out the non-majors. Everybody gets to play. I won’t toss diamonds into the Dumpster.
— Email Debra DeAngelo at [email protected]; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.edebra.com