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Things that you should never have said about MFA Writing Programs now that you (thankfully) no longer teach in one
A couple of weeks ago, an "author" by the name of Ryan Boudinot wrote an article called Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One.
In this piece, Boudinot dispels a few of the myths regarding being "a writer" and what it takes to be "a writer". Allegedly.
Let's dig in. Indented italicised content is quoted from the original source, and I go through it all line by line. The original content is from "The Stranger" and is copyright © Index Newspapers LLC. The original content is at the above link.
Consider this an open response to Mr. Boudinot...
I recently left a teaching position in a master of fine arts creative-writing program.
And therein lies the first problem. Creative writing, okay. But "fine arts"? That is way too pompous. As if your precious words are too delicate for mere scum like, well, myself and my readers to ever hope to grasp the subtleties of.
No, dumbass. Writing has two principle purposes. To inform or educate, and to entertain. Good writers can do both. Great writers can do it in a way that when you have finished, you want to tell everybody about the book you've just read. But drop the "fine arts" prefix, it makes the whole thing sound stupid.
I had a handful of students whose work changed my life. The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it.
Sadly, this is quite probably true. If you look at some of the samplers and free Kindle books, the stories can be awful. If you stray into the world of fanfic, it gets even worse. There, you have a storyline and a plot and a basis upon which to build, but it usually ends up being a way for an author avatar to have sex (or other pervier persuits) with their favourite character. And, generally, it is just bad.
My hope for them was that they would become better readers.
This is true. One cannot write without reading. There is a lot about the language and wordplay that the average school English teacher doesn't teach you. We can't all afford to go to college and then university to dissect the language and its etymology in minute detail. So we can learn by reading the work of others. Often. Different genres too.
And then there were students whose work was so awful that it literally put me to sleep.
Wouldn't this imply that you basically failed as a teacher?
Here are some things I learned from these experiences.
This ought to be enjoyable...
Writers are born with talent.
Do you really believe that?
Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don't. Some people have more talent than others.
I will agree that some people are born with a better aptitude but I think a lot of the so-called talent is learned. For example, I had a mother that enjoys reading and a father that was quite musical. As my father (who was not great with literature) died when I was young, and my mother is not musically inclined, I like music, I like seeing how music fits together, and I believe that I do have an aptitude for music but having missed nearly forty years of education and training, I have practically zero talent with it.
My mother, on the other hand, can go through a book in a couple of days. As can I. I enjoy reading, I enjoy thinking about what I have read. I was on to John Whyndams when the other kids in class were reading books that had pictures on every facing page and really big print, Ladybird style.
Couple this with a rather overactive imagination, I also enjoy writing.
Now ask yourself this. If my mother had died and my father raised me - I might be able to rock out with an organ and epic strum atop a mountain, but do you think I would be writing this? Do you think I would have much ability at all with reading and writing?
Do you still believe that writers "are born with talent"?
That's not to say that someone with minimal talent can't work her ass off and maximize it and write something great,
Work her ass off?
or that a writer born with great talent can't squander it. It's simply that writers are not all born equal.
It is more likely that writers are not only not born equally, they aren't raised equally, nor are they educated equally.
Remind me again - how many teenagers leave school "functionally illiterate"? I really don't understand how it is possible to pass through... <counts on fingers> some 12 or so years of formal education and still be illiterate. Dyslexia, maybe. But for normal people to leave school without basic abilities in maths, reading, logical thinking, and so on...?
That suggests that there are many factors which make "a writer". To try to pin it solely upon some sort of birth right makes you sound like a bit of an elitist moron.
The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare,
Quite possibly: The writer who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare.
and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.
Why does this surprise you? Consider the population of the planet. Now consider the number of established writers. Now consider that you are from Seattle. One city out of many. Now consider that you were one teacher. One of many. Given all of that, the number of Real Deal students is quite likely to be countable on one hand with spare fingers.
What makes me wonder is... how do you treat all of your other students? They might go into journalism (sort of writing) or making crappy formulaic love stories for weekend magazines or self publishing, or whathaveyou. That doesn't mean that anybody who isn't the Real Deal is worthless. It just means they won't have a book on the shelf besides Stephen King, Dan Brown, Sue Grafton...
If you didn't decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you're probably not going to make it.
Funny you should say that. There was a story in the paper a few weeks back about a bloke who retired. His massive amounts of free time was driving him nuts so he bought himself an easel and some oil paints and knocked out some amazing artwork with the ease of Bob Ross. He never even knew he could so much as draw.
Okay, this is rare, fair enough. But I don't think it is necessarily accurate to say that anybody who wasn't serious about writing as a teenager is a write-off. Sure, you would need to enjoy reading as a teenager as a lot of the groundwork happens then... but it seemed to me that the sort of teenagers that were serious were quite stressy (we'd probably call them "emo" these days) and the rest were not particularly serious about anything. You can guess which group I fell in to.
There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one's 30s or 40s is probably too late.
I think you need to have the groundwork in place, certainly. But... Let's put it like this. I have written many short stories. I shared some, deleted most. I am 41 now and contemplating writing a sci-fi novella (I have the plot all laid out in my mind, but I don't think I can pad it out to 300 pages). Why am I planning on this now? Because a decade and a half ago I had an idea for a great story but I threw it away as I realised that I was not mature enough, or maybe even psychologically ready to do the concept justice. I have needed to develop myself as a person to be able to consider writing a good story.
That doesn't mean it won't be crap after all, that just means that before I did not feel that I would be able to take my idea and write something worthwhile.
Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.
Ah, yes. The essential learning stage. The part where you experience the language, live within the language, and learn how to use the language.
Instead of all that twaddle about being born with talent.
If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
You know, those Real Deal people you can count on several fingers? Those are the precious few that can shut themselves in their study and concentrate on exactly the best way to word the bombshell revelation in chapter seventeen.
Everybody else? Everybody else needs to juggle their time to write with being a student (if a student), possibly working (to support being a student), and family commitments. If not a student, they probably will have real jobs (which will take an extraordinary amount of time out of their lives), family, perhaps children and childcare issues.
Your Real Deals can concentrate on being writers. That will be their job.
The rest of us have to fit it in amongst a vast plethora of other activities. All of which are perhaps more important than writing. Sorry. It has to be said. Writing is not the most important thing in my life. I would love to take off a couple of months to write my sci-fi story several times to expand it into the best work that I am capable of doing. Are you going to pay all my bills?
I thought not. That's why I have to go to work. To make money. To pay the bills. I guess being the "executive director of Seattle City of Literature" is a job that pays well but does not require much in the way of effort, so you may have more time in which to dedicate to writing. Out in the real world, it just doesn't work like that.
I went to a low-residency MFA program and, years later, taught at a low-residency MFA program. "Low-residency" basically means I met with my students two weeks out of the year and spent the rest of the semester critiquing their work by mail.
In other words, the bare minimum. Jesus, if I wanted critiques like that, I'd publish on my blog and let random readers pick it apart. Or put it up as a free book on Amazon Kindle and see how many stars (and what sort of feedback) I get. Consider it crowdsourcing the learning process...
I would hope that if I should ever attend a creative writing programme, I'd meet regularly with a teacher. But, then, I guess this might explain why you didn't discover many Real Deal students. If they were really serious about writing, surely they went to programmes that were a little more....interactive.
My experience tells me this: Students who ask a lot of questions about time management, blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are should just give up and do something else.
Refer to the above. Daily modern life for anybody over the age of "child" is complicated and messy. There's a lot of stuff that all needs to be done at the same time. Until a person is known enough that writing can pay for itself, writing is something that takes a lot of time for not a lot of financial return. Yes, it sucks to have to define it in monetary terms, but we keep coming back to the same question - if writing does not pay the bills, who or what does?
Their complaints are an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student.
And your response is an insult to all of your students.
On a related note: Students who ask if they're "real writers," simply by asking that question, prove that they are not.
That might be a fair point, but then let me ask you - define what is a real writer? Am I a real writer because I write a blog? Is Mr. Littlejohn a real writer because he writes columns in a newspaper? Or do you need to hold a published book in your hand before you can think of yourself as a real writer? What exactly is a real writer? Perhaps you can forgive your students asking this because it is a somewhat indistinct and imprecise concept.
If you aren't a serious reader, don't expect anyone to read what you write.
I suppose this again comes down to learning from others. But it is interesting that you complain about those complaining of not having time and yet here you are assigning books to read while saying that people should have time to write. Your missive is something of a mass of contradictions, is it not?
Without exception, my best students were the ones who read the hardest books I could assign and asked for more.
One student, having finished his assigned books early, asked me to assign him three big novels for the period between semesters. Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity's Rainbow, I told him, almost as a joke. He read all three and submitted an extra-credit essay, too. That guy was the Real Deal.
Never heard of any of them. So I looked them up.
I notice, incidentally, that your recommended books were all by men.
- Infinite Jest (3.8 Amazon Com) - A gargantuan, mind-altering comedy about the pursuit of happiness in America. Set in an addicts' halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction, Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are. Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human - and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do. - I think I got more out of Ergo Proxy than I would from this.
- 2666 (3.5/5 Google) - Google Books says: Written with burning intesity in the last years of Roberto Bolaño's life, 2666 has been greeted across the world as the great writer's masterpiece, surpassing everything in imagination, beauty and scope. It is a novel on an astonishing scale from a passionate visionary. 'The best book of 2008 ... A masterpiece, the electrifying literary event of the year' Time 'Readers who have snacked on Haruki Murakami will feast on Roberto Bolaño' Sunday Times 'Bolaño makes you feel changed for having read him; he adjusts your angle of view on the world' - sorry, I am wary of descriptions that talk about how great the book is rather than what the book is about.
- Gravity's Rainbow (3.8/5 Amazon UK) - a postmodern epic, a work as exhaustively significant to the second half of the twentieth century as Joyce's Ulysses was to the first. Its sprawling, encyclopedic narrative and penetrating analysis of the impact of technology on society make it an intellectual tour de force.
Further down is something resembling a description: Tyrone Slothrop, a GI in London in 1944, has a big problem. Whenever he gets an erection, a Blitz bomb hits. Slothrop gets excited, and then at which point I stopped reading. If I wanted to read stuff like that, I'd find my Ballard collection and reread Crash.
Me? I guess my recommendations would be:
The Drowned World is something of an erratic plot. I think it is more to make you 'feel', coupled with a number of mindscrews. And as for The Host (not the Korean monster film!), I saw this as a film and then read the book and I can't believe it was written by the same person that created all that Twilight tat.
- J.G.Ballard's The Drowned World (post-apocalyptic 3.6/5)
- Jenny Nimmo's The Snow Spider (magic and Welshness; 4.5/5)
- Stephenie Meyer's The Host (aliens are us; 4.4/5)
You'll notice that I believe that books should be enjoyed, not difficult. I book that is "hard" stays on the shelf. I read for learning and for pleasure.
Conversely, I've had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or—without a trace of embarrassment—say they weren't into "the classics" as if "the classics" was some single, aesthetically consistent genre.
Quite true. The only thing between Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick is thirty eight years.
Students who claimed to enjoy "all sorts" of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste.
It's the same with music. Find somebody who claims to enjoy "all sorts" of music and get them to listen to ragtime, over-perky JPOP, and dubstep. That combination would soon dispel any rubbish about enjoying "all sorts".
It's probably quite the same thing with literature. Let's see - anything by Dickens followed by Neuromancer followed by Alice In Wonderland followed by Moby Dick.
One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduate student!), told me she preferred to read books "that don't make me work so hard to understand the words." I almost quit my job on the spot.
Actually, I've never read The Great Gatsby. My school was one for children with learning disabilities so with a lot of dyslexics around, assigned reading didn't tend to get very far. There was one kid who had such trouble reading a sentence out loud that by the time he had finished, he had completely forgotten the beginning, so somebody else had to read it to him afterwards.
No one cares about your problems if you're a shitty writer. (sic)
Dude - unless you are (in)famous (crack open a copy of Closer or National Enquirer, you'll see what I mean), nobody cares about your problems period.
I worked with a number of students writing memoirs.
Aren't you supposed to be kind of old and important to write a memoir?
One of my Real Deal students wrote a memoir that actually made me cry. He was a rare exception. For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy.
And? There are many reasons that motivate people to write.
Me, for example. I don't need to write. God knows I don't have enough time to write. I'm not looking for fame either, nor am I deluded enough to anticipate fortune. But I want to simply because it seems such a shame to waste all of the ideas floating around my head.
That might seem to you to be a comically bad reason, but it's my motivation. If you disagree, then, well, frankly your opinion has already ceased to be relevant to me and it will very shortly cease to be relevant to anybody at all.
They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable.
The word you are desperately flailing around searching for is catharsis.
Perhaps you should first ascertain if they have any inclination whatsoever to publish this work. If they do not, then maybe - just maybe - it is written more for their benefit than for yours. Fair enough, that won't make suffering their work any different to suffering a Steinbeck novel, but it may help explain why it is what it is.
As for having grammatical inabilities, I cannot imagine that writing such a thing (which would mean reliving it internally plus examining remembered details) would be an easy thing.
In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.
You, Sir, are a Bastard. The worst kind of human effluent. An embarrassment to our species.
What the hell kind of person would actually say that having to slog through 500 pages of dreary rubbish makes you wish they had suffered more child abuse. What the hell kind of cheap lousy excuse for a human being are you?
This. Right here. This is the point where your opinions are no longer relevant to anybody. This is where the MFA can be glad that you are gone.
You don't need my help to get published.
Well, I'm glad you found a better teacher to you than you appear to have been to your students.
When I was working on my MFA between 1997 and 1999, I understood that if I wanted any of the work I was doing to ever be published, I'd better listen to my faculty advisers. MFA programs of that era were useful from a professional development standpoint—I still think about a lecture the poet Jason Shinder gave at Bennington College that was full of tremendously helpful career advice I use to this day.
But in today's Kindle/e-book/self-publishing environment, with New York publishing sliding into cultural irrelevance, I find questions about working with agents and editors increasingly old-fashioned.
Oh, I see. Paper books are right there alongside vinyl records and horseless carriages. An anachronism of the past.
Funny how I'm still seeing new releases in paperback in "bookshops" (term used a bit loosely) attached to supermarkets.
Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening. My advice is for writers to reject the old models and take over the production of their own and each other's work as much as possible.
This is possibly true. There are many changes in publishing. It is now remarkably easy to get content on to Kindle, and there are even publish-on-demand services available. My copy of Japanese Reader Collection Volume 1: Hikoichi was created in this way. It says "Printed in Great Britain by Amazon.co.uk., Ltd." in the back.
This is an important development as it provides a person, as an author, greater control over their work. Greater control over the distribution. And greater artistic abilities. No longer do they need to impress or appease agents, sell themselves to big publishing houses, and so on.
But, the flip side of this is that a lot of the services traditionally provided by publishing houses that are not at the disposition of the author. An editor would go over the work to check for logic errors. Either the editor or the agent would read it and flag inconsistencies or gaping plot holes. Editors also make suggestions for parts to rewrite based upon a historical knowledge of the target demographic, use of trademarked names, things that may be worded in a clunky way, and so on. Finally a proof reader would check the work for grammatical and spelling errors. An computer might bee able too cheque four spelling errors butt this don't work when error words is correct spelt nor when like grammar is awful but words is fine. As that sentence would demonstrate.
In short, while it is a lot harder to be accepted by a publishing house (and their economies of scale will aim them to look for those they can make a decent profit on as opposed to niche authors), when one is accepted they are supposed to work with the author to make the publication the best it can be. A piece of crap not only embarrasses the author, it will embarrass them.
Or, the much simpler route is self-publishing. If/when my story is ready, I plan to do this. Amazon makes it all quite easy. But I am acutely aware that any flaws will show me up, and me alone. The story must be consistent, it must be well written, and all of the checks and verifications will be mine to make. My responsibility. Alone.
Accordingly, there is a lot of rubbish being published.
It's not important that people think you're smart.
No, but it might be important that people don't think you're stupid...
After eight years of teaching at the graduate level, I grew increasingly intolerant of writing designed to make the writer look smart, clever, or edgy. I know this work when I see it; I've written a fair amount of it myself.
Remind me again - what were the three books you named above?
But writing that's motivated by the desire to give the reader a pleasurable experience really is best.
Very very true. As an person who writes (I do not consider myself an "author" or "writer" as it is not the primary focus of my life), I understand that there is no point whatsoever to writing anything if the reader is not going to either learn from or enjoy reading that which I have written. Even here, writing this, I am writing this more to highlight something astonishingly horrible plus provide some responses from my point of view, but I am writing it also to entertain (black humour style) the readers of my blog. I know you will never read it, and if you did I reckon your head is so far up the rectal passageway that you would entirely miss the point.
So yes, you are right about this. A work that nobody wants to read is defined by one word: failure.
I told a few students over the years that their only job was to keep me entertained, and the ones who got it started to enjoy themselves, and the work got better.
I suppose this is your prerogative being a creative writing course. Writing is also to inform and educate. But, at any rate, unless one is producing reference material that will sit on a shelf until necessary, it is important to make the content something that people would want to read.
There is nothing new here. Good films are films that people want to watch.
Good TV series are ones that people want to watch.
Good <item>s are ones that people want to <use>.
Those who didn't get it were stuck on the notion that their writing was a tool designed to procure my validation.
Ah, the sucking-up-to-the-teacher syndrome. Receiving kind words from a teacher doesn't mean a lot in the outside world.
The funny thing is, if you can put your ego on the back burner and focus on giving someone a wonderful reading experience, that's the cleverest writing.
...which is sort of re-iterating the above. Write stuff that people want to read.
It's important to woodshed.
Yes and no.
Occasionally my students asked me about how I got published after I got my MFA, and the answer usually disappointed them. After I received my degree in 1999, I spent seven years writing work that no one has ever read—two novels and a book's worth of stories totaling about 1,500 final draft pages. These unread pages are my most important work because they're where I applied what I'd learned from my workshops and the books I read, one sentence at a time. Those seven years spent in obscurity, with no attempt to share my work with anyone, were my training, and they are what allowed me to eventually write books that got published.
The basis of what has been said is correct. I think very few people in the world will turn out a masterpiece on their first try. However I believe that after a point, one should share their work with some trusted friends (trusted to tell the truth, not what they think you want to hear) to gain feedback from somebody external. While there are plenty of stories of the badass hero going off for years of self study and internal examination, even a trainee Buddhist monk has a mentor. You are expected to find your own epiphany, but there will be somebody guiding you. Helping you see the way.
Or to put it in much simpler terms - total obscurity means you are only as good as you think you are. Receiving important feedback helps you become even better.
We've been trained to turn to our phones to inform our followers of our somewhat witty observations. I think the instant validation of our apps is an enemy to producing the kind of writing that takes years to complete.
Well, certainly. On the other hand, I don't think - even as a gag - anybody has attempted to publish a work of any useful length as a series of tweets. Plus, a book that contained a pile of witty observations sounds like it would be a disjointed pile of rubbish. The two are simply not the same thing. It's like saying "speech is the enemy of great literature". Apples and oranges.
That's why I advise anyone serious about writing books to spend at least a few years keeping it secret.
I don't think it should be kept a big secret, but likewise nobody should go around saying "I'm a writer!" until they have a few published books under their belt. If for no reason other than not appearing to be a jerk when somebody asks (and they invariably will) - Oh? What have you written?
I can call myself a writer when I can point you to my work on Amazon. Until then, I'm a hobbyist programmer (validation? easy - go here) and some-random-bloke-with-a-blog (validation? you're reading it!).
If you're able to continue writing while embracing the assumption that no one will ever read your work, it will reward you in ways you never imagined.
I work on the principle of having three regular readers. I don't keep stats of how often a page is read (and if I did, my best friend would be some guy called Yandex). I simply write when I think I have something to say, purely because I like it. It would be so much simpler to sit and watch Serenity instead of writing this. But, you know, sometimes you just gotta start pressing those lettered keys to see what sort of drivel falls out the other end of the machine...
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|GAVIN WRAITH, 22nd March 2015, 18:28|
Rick, I have been reading your stuff since the days of Frobnicate. It has always been interesting, sometimes surprising and usually thoughtful. Please keep it up.
|VinceH, 23rd March 2015, 14:56|
In parts of this post you seem to be confusing "talent" with "ability" for a large part of your response - and further down, you seem to be confusing "ability" with "talent".
The guy talks of being born with talent, and he is correct: talent is a /natural/ skill in a field, be that writing or whatever other, which is what you are criticising while talking about it as though it's an ability.
However, that talent is wasted if the result is that an idea, a world in your head, can't be turned into meaningful words on a page that other people will understand and enjoy - and that's where the learning comes in; that's the ability a naturally talented writer needs to gain, and when he seems to be talking about that, you appear to be talking more about talent.
There are other things I could comment on, but it was a long post, and I can't be bothered to find specific bits - so I'll stick with that general point.
I will add, though, that I don't disagree with all of what you've said - some of your comments are valid enough. In particular where you called him a bastard - he earned that name fair and square.
|Rick, 23rd March 2015, 19:25|
While I won't deny that some degree of aptitude may have a genetic basis, I think a large part is education and training - especially in the younger years. Thus, to me, "ability" and "talent" are practically synonymous.
|tjm, 24th March 2015, 00:12|
If we restrict our reading only to authors whose sole ambition in life has been to write, we run the risk of missing out on the insights and imagination of people have lived any other sort of life. Being a "writer" (as opposed to someone who writes) is, after all, a solitary pursuit, and it's easy to imagine how one dedicated entirely to writing in that way might miss out on a great many real-world experiences.
I personally have little interest in reading about life, real or imagined, if the writer has not really lived one. Three of my favourite authors of fiction were formerly a computer scientist, medical doctor and nightclub bouncer, yet somehow they all managed to write well, despite not having dedicated every waking moment from early adolescence to writing. I'd say it's safe to ignore this tedious little man and his dogma.
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