School isn’t for everyone. Ray Bradbury was famous for his intense loyalty to libraries over traditional schools. Even when Bradbury was pushing 90, he fought hard for his troubled local Ventura County Public Libraries, telling The New York Times: “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”
There are many reasons why students drop out of school: prohibitory tuition costs, displeasure with required core-curriculum courses and, in the best case scenario, opportunities beyond the classroom. Thankfully, dropping out in no way indicates failure — in fact, for these five writers, it seems to be the best path they could have taken. Here’s how they earned their educations:
1. Jonathan Lethem Dropped out of Bennington College
During his Bennington College commencement address — a speech to the graduates of the school he had dropped out of — Lethem jokingly referred to himself as a “sophomore on leave.” To this day, Lethem still doesn’t have his degree. After growing up in a Brooklyn commune during the ‘70s, he left the nest to study art at Bennington, following in the footsteps of his father, who was a successful avant-garde painter. Fortunately for readers, halfway through Lethem’s sophomore year, he realized his true passion was writing. He told the school that he was going “on leave” and hitchhiked to Berkeley, California, where he would work as a bookseller and drop in on the occasional UC Berkeley lecture.
2. Jamaica Kincaid Dropped out of Franconia College (Now Defunct)
At the age of 17, Kincaid left Antigua for New York. She worked as an au pair for three years and attended night classes at a community college, proving sharp enough to earn a ticket out: a full scholarship to Franconia College in New Hampshire. After a year of feeling “too old” to be in school, Kincaid ditched Franconia to secure a job writing interviews for a teen girls magazine in New York. It was then that she changed her name from Elaine Potter Richardson to Jamaica Kincaid and started writing for The Village Voice and Ingénue, eventually earned the attention of William Shawn — the New Yorker editor who would become her mentor.
3. F. Scott Fitzgerald Dropped out of Princeton University
Academic probation at Princeton? Classic Fitzgerald. Unlikely to graduate, Fitzgerald joined the army in 1917 and was declared the second lieutenant of his infantry. He quickly wrote “The Romantic Egoist” during his time stationed in the U.S. for fear that it would be his only opportunity to write the next Great American Novel before dying in World War I. Sadly, the manuscript only met with rejection. A year later, Fitzgerald was moved to Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama, where he met Zelda Sayre and reignited his hopes for “The Romantic Egoist,” which, unfortunately, would earn yet another rejection from Scribner.
Fitzgerald was never sent overseas and instead earned a job in New York as an ad man, which he didn’t like much and abandoned as soon as Zelda broke off their engagement. Crushed, the author returned home to live with his parents in Minneapolis. There he revised the novel once more, renaming it This Side of Paradise, which — finally! — won him instant success. (And all without that degree from Princeton, we might add.)
4. Alex Haley Dropped out of Elizabeth City State College (Now Elizabeth City State University)
Just like his father before him, Haley enrolled in Alcorn State University at the age of 15, transferring to Elizabeth City State College just a year later. When Haley returned from his second year of college, he announced that he had withdrawn from school. His father, a professor at Alabama A&M University, decided that Haley needed a little discipline to grow up and forced him to join the military. Haley ended up serving 20 years in the Coast Guard, earning not only service medals, but serious journalism chops as well. He went on to publish his first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (which he coauthored), in 1965, just six years after he left the service.
5. Harper Lee Dropped out of Huntingdon College
Lee’s father was happy to pay for law school, but refused to finance her dreams of becoming a writer. Despite this, she dropped out of college her first semester of senior year, just shy of her bachelor’s degree. Ignoring her father’s warnings, Lee moved to New York City to write — and thank god! Undoubtedly, her literary legacy is far more impressive than any law degree she could have earned.
To be a success without a degree, you still have to work your butt off — that much is clear from the lives of these five writers. Dropping out of college is no excuse to give up and let fate take its course. You still have to follow your passion and put in all the work to make it.
Do you think writers today could still successfully earn their chops without a college degree, let alone without an MFA? Let us know in the comments below. If there are any writers you would add to our list of dropouts, mention them too!
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post. As a former cheesemonger, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese. Follow her on Twitter: @moorefreddie
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