Brain Pickings

William Styron on Why Formal Education Is a Waste of Time for Writers

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“For a person whose sole burning ambition is to write — like myself — college is useless beyond the Sophomore year.”

William Styron (June 11, 1925–November 1, 2006) is one of the most beloved writers of the past century, in large part due to his confident idealism and dogged determination about writing. It was a spirit he cultivated early on, unwilling to accept the standard industrial model of a formal education in literature as the only path to a successful career as a writer. From the altogether wonderful Selected Letters of William Styron (public library) — a fine addition to my lifelong love affair with writers’ and artists’ letters — comes a missive 20-year-old Bill sent to his father on October 21, 1946, during his senior year at Duke University. After discussing the bureaucratic logistics of applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, the requirements for which included two references who could attest to his “character, sobriety, virtue, and that sort of thing,” he launches into a spirited dissent against the limitations of higher education. Among other things, he argues that reading philosophy, particularly Montaigne, is not only a better teacher of writing than literature but also better at helping us learn how to live, which is in turn essential for great writing.

William Styron as a college student

Dear Pop …

I’m fed up, disgusted, and totally out of sorts with Duke University and formal education in general, for that matter, and I hardly see why I’m taking a crack at this Rhodes scholarship when I’m such an execrable student. Only the fact that this is my last semester keeps me from packing up and leaving.

I’ve come to the stage when I know what I want to do with my future. I want to write, and that’s all, and I need no study of such quaint American writers as Cotton Mather or Philip Freneau — both of whom we are studying in American Lit — to increase my perception or outlook on literature and life. For a person whose sole burning ambition is to write — like myself — college is useless beyond the Sophomore year. By that time he knows that further wisdom comes from reading men like Plato and Montaigne — not Cotton Mather — and from getting out in the world and living. All of the rest of the scholarship in English literature is for pallid, prim and vapid young men who will end up teaching and devoting 30 years of their sterile lives in investigating some miserably obscure facet of the life of some minor Renaissance poet. Sure, scholarship is necessary, but its [sic] not for me. I’m going to write, and I’ll spend the rest of my days on a cattle-boat or jerking sodas before I teach.

Styron lived up to his determination. After graduation, he took an editing job at a major New York publishing house, which he hated so much that he intentionally got himself fired. He spent the next three years toiling away on his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, under the New York equivalent of a cattle-boat lifestyle, scrapping together just enough money to get by. It paid off — when the book was published in 1951, it was received with wide acclaim and earned Styron the prestigious Rome Prize awarded by the American Academy in Rome and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

William Styron in 1979

He never did teach in the formal sense, though his monumentally influential 1985 memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, provided unparalleled insight into the disease and informed much of our modern discourse about it.

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