7 Famous Authors Who Didn’t Study Literature
I’ve always been fascinated by the advice “write what you know.” It’s good advice—it’s direct and relatable. As a fiction writer as well as a blogger, it’s always a good feeling when a piece of writing can sort of “pour out” of me onto the page. Instead of fact-checking and researching, I can just write from the experiences I have had and craft a narrative that I know will resonate because I know it’s true.
So I’ve always wondered about people who study creative writing or English lit and hope to be writers. I don’t think this is a bad plan—learning your craft is essential (and I studied both sociology and comparative literature, so if I ever write that bestseller I won’t make my own list).
However, I do wonder about the vast universe of details and anecdotes that might be missed along the way when an author knows the process of beautiful writing, but doesn’t have a deep well of other knowledge or skills to draw from.
Put it another way, here are 7 famous authors who didn’t major in writing or English lit but DID pursue college degrees.
I think it comes through in their writing, don’t you?
The man who brought us Jurassic Park, Disclosure, Sphere, and many others (not to mention the TV series ER) did not study writing. Perhaps thinking over that list of collected works is a good indication of “writing what you know.”
Even though Crichton was interested in writing from childhood (and published a travel column in the New York Times at age 14), he majored in biological anthropology as an undergrad at Harvard before completing his Medical Doctorate, complete with fiction-inspiring medical rotations.
Barbara Kingsolver was the first author I was aware of who was talking about the value of studying something other than writing. On her website, she writes, “Any writer is served by learning about the world…The great underestimated source of knowledge for writers is school.”
Kingsolver studied classical piano before finishing her degree in biology and then receiving her Master’s degree in ecology. So when she writes about science, ecosystems, and climate change in books like Animal Dreams, Prodigal Summer, and Flight Behavior, she knows her stuff, and deserves an informed place on the bestseller lists.
In fact, she writes, “In school I studied nearly everything except writing.”
Like Barbara Kingsolver, Grisham has a lot to say for the power of a non-writing background. He said, “I seriously doubt I would ever have written the first story had I not been a lawyer. I never dreamed of being a writer. I wrote only after witnessing a trial.”
No one who has read one of his novels would be surprised that John Grisham studied law, or that he was a practicing attorney for nearly ten years before turning to writing. However, I was surprised to learn that his undergraduate degree was even further from a conventionally creative track—he studied accounting at Mississippi State University.
Sue Monk Kidd
She then turned to writing, enrolling in creative writing classes and eventually switching her career entirely from nursing to inspirational writing to eventually launching her fiction career with the massive bestseller The Secret Life of Bees.
Lest all you lit-craving science majors out there think this is a direct path to writing fortune and fame, much of the background to his fiction writing comes from his experience in the army in World War II, where he was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and survived the bombing of Dresden as a POW housed in a slaughterhouse. That was a good foundation for Slaughterhouse-Five, but not really something for aspiring writers to emulate.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Like Michael Crichton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–the creator of Sherlock Holmes–was a medical man. He was a writer from an early age, but pursued medicine as a practical option and even spent part of his third year medical studies as the ship’s surgeon on an Arctic whaling ship.
So when Holmes discusses science or observes the human body in patient detail, the man knew what he was talking about.
Jean M. Auel
Her most famous work is heavily focused on anthropology and human evolutionary biology. So I suppose Jean M. Auel’s biography straddles this line in the sand I drew for this post: you don’t have to study writing to be a writer, but you also don’t have to write about what you studied either.
So, for all of you aspiring authors out there, know that if you feel trapped by parental desire for you to pursue a “practical” non-literature-related degree, this knowledge could help you along the way.
And if you’re launching a college career and hope to someday call yourself an author, consider what you’ll know as a broader experience and pursue deep education in a non-lit subject that will be fodder for your creative process for years to come.