There’s this essay making the rounds on my social media. It’s called “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” by Ryan Boudinot. I’ve been seeing it for days, shared by friends and former professors, writers whose work I love, teachers whose work I admire.
I’ve been avoiding it for two reasons: One, it was getting almost universal praise, a lot of “hell yeah!” exclamations, and I only have so much room for bandwagons in my life (thank you for filling that spot this past week, blue-black/white-gold dress). And two (more importantly), I was getting the sense from the title and the cheerleading that this was one of those “thank god I’ve left the sham of academia and all you poser literati behind” essays, which always tend to rub me the wrong way.
But today I finally decided I’d too long avoided reading it. So I read it.
I was right about Boudinot’s general attitude. And in some ways, his approach is even worse than I suspected, because he doesn’t really attack academia or the institution of creative writing instruction — he mostly attacks the students who enroll in such programs. And while I’m fine poking fun at the occasional foolishness of particular students, attacking students in this way never sits well with me.
Granted, Boudinot often mocks students in order to comment on the larger problems of the institution — he describes a student who came to him commenting on The Great Gatsby and includes the aside “(for the first time! Yes, a graduate student!)” as a way for him to complain about the failures of academia to prepare students to his standards, as though we all have some universal reading list we’re supposed to be adhering to. But it still feels off to me to mock students in general, and often in his essay, he’s doing so merely to mock the students, not to make some larger point.
Still, I do agree with some of the things Boudinot writes. But overall, it bothers me, enough that I’m here writing a response to it, and I think one reason is that Boudinot starts off — purposefully, I suspect — with the things that bug me most. That abrasive contrariness sets the tone for the rest of the piece so that, no matter how much sense it makes near the end, I’m inclined to read the whole thing with wariness and contention.
So, to demonstrate how that works in my head (and perhaps to be fair to Boudinot’s not-so-bad ideas), I’ll address his points backward:
“It’s important to woodshed.”
Boudinot ends with something I think we all know — the least contentious point: that we should hit our students with regular doses of reality. “Occasionally my students asked me about how I got published after I got my MFA, and the answer usually disappointed them,” he writes, and then he launches into the usual story of toiling away “in obscurity, with no attempt to share my work with anyone,” for years as he perfected his craft.
Sure. Writing is hard and most of us will never make it as big as we think we deserve to. (Is anyone really telling students otherwise? Especially in an MFA program?)
There is an irony here, though. Boudinot ends by complaining that “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.” Which I find hilarious, because here I am reading Boudinot’s “witty observations” in an online magazine, after watching it — on the screen of my phone — spread through my various social media apps.
Still, he’s not wrong about his final sentence: “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.” It’s something I tell creative writing students (and composition students, for that matter) all the time.
“It’s not important that people think you’re smart.”
I get this. Because I tend to spend most of my time with beginning writers, I don’t usually run into this problem — I do a lot of work encouraging writers, telling them that they’re smarter than they think they are and that they do have valuable contributions to make to literature. So I’ve forgotten the kind of obsessive jerk with something to prove that I sometimes encountered in my grad programs. (Hell, I might even have been one.)
“After eight years of teaching at the graduate level,” Boudinot writes, “I grew increasingly intolerant of writing designed to make the writer look smart, clever, or edgy.” And I understand this complaint. As in architecture, form follows function, but a lot of writers are eager to look cool by building ridiculous “inventive” stories or poems or essays, to be avant-garde, to write something no one else has ever written before. “But writing that’s motivated by the desire to give the reader a pleasurable experience really is best,” Boudinot writes, and he’s correct in that.
I think he’s forgetting an important part of the learning process, though, which is to try things out for the first time. I spend a lot of my writing classes teaching students the “rules” of writing, and whenever I encounter that first-year student who wants to ignore the rules, I hit them with the old axiom that one must know the rules in order to break them. I think the reverse is true in graduate school: one must break every rule, and invent new rules to break — one must experiment wildly and fail fantastically — before one can return to a simpler, more direct way of writing.
Boudinot knows what I’m talking about: “I know this work when I see it,” he writes; “I’ve written a fair amount of it myself.” So why should he complain when his students do the same?
“You don’t need my help to get published.”
“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. Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening.”
Yeah, fair enough.
Boudinot writes this section to counter the “old-fashioned” model of getting ushered into publishing through the auspices of faculty mentors. And while that might still work in some of the most prestigious programs, he’s right that it’s outdated and not terribly useful anymore.
I do find it odd, though, that his “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,” mostly by embracing the new self-publishing model. I have no problem with this advice, and while no one is going to get rich and famous in self-publishing (that’s my “woodshed” speech), I personally know a lot of writers putting truly inventive, beautiful work out into the world by bypassing the traditional system and publishing it themselves. But we also know that for every brilliant, inventive writer self-publishing important new literature, there are a few hundred hacks cranking out the kind of “smart, clever, or edgy” junk that Boudinot himself complains about. So. Hmm.
That’s why I still value the traditional pathway to publication — these “gatekeepers” of the system aren’t there to keep me out; they’re there to rein me in and help prevent me from making an ass of myself. (Making an ass of myself is what my blog is for.)
Which leads me to:
“No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.”
Here, Boudinot jumps directly in the middle of a pet peeve of mine: he seeks to silence writers.
“I worked with a number of students writing memoirs,” he begins. “For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults.”
Look. I get this. I’ve seen it, and just as those “edgy” experimentalists are more prevalent in grad school, these “narcissists” are more prevalent in grad school. They’ve made it that far, so they must have something important to say.
And no, just because they have something to say doesn’t mean I have to read it.
But I will never attack a writer for trying to tell their story. Ever.
But that’s not even the worst of Boudinot’s attacks here:
“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,” Boudinot writes. Viciously. Uncompassionately. And if that wasn’t inhumane enough for you, he ends with this: “In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.” (Emphasis mine.)
Holy shit, Boudinot. I know: reading bad writing is hard. Reading 500 pages of bad writing is mind-numbingly, hair-rippingly awful. Reading bad writing from someone who is supposedly worthy of graduate school is infuriating. I get all that.
But is it on par with suffering child abuse? Is it such an affront to you that you would actually wish child abuse — sorry, “more” child abuse — on someone?
Look, I’m sorry, Boudinot, but go fuck yourself, okay?
And remember, I’m working through Boudinot’s essay backward. That piss-stain of a passage there happens about the middle of the essay, and while the beginning set me off, I’d read two sections that had earned Boudinot some good will:
“If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.”
Sure. That feels pretty self-explanatory to me, and it’s one of the things my social-media friends are quoting most often when they share this piece. You want to write? Read! Read widely and often.
And, “If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.”
Again, fairly self-explanatory, though I take issue with the last part.
My first year of teaching, I had a student in what we then called “developmental” writing (which was better than “remedial,” which is what we called it when I was in school). This guy was a wonderful human being — sweet, earnest, respectful, hard-working. Dude went to every tutoring session he had time for. On every essay, he wrote three more drafts than I required. But he just was not getting it, and about halfway through the semester I learned he was on his third attempt at the class. He’d already failed it twice before, and he was on his way to failing my class as well. I asked my dean how he kept getting admitted, and the dean said he was on a special scholarship that would pay out as long as he was enrolled; simply put, the university kept admitting him because they wanted his money.
I sat down for a long talk with this student and, though it broke my heart to do so, I made one of those “woodshed” speeches and suggested he drop out of school, find a good job in a field he liked, make a life for himself.
He did not take my advice. He stuck with it, went to more tutoring sessions, kept turning in essays. He still failed my class.
And then, the next semester, with a different teacher, on his fourth try — he passed.
I have never forgotten that. And I have never again advised a student to quit.
So, yeah, Boudinot, students who complain about not having time to write need a woodshed moment. But they don’t need you to tell them to quit — they need you to teach them the importance of making time and the patience to keep working on it. Your impatience with them isn’t helping anyone.
Speaking of time and patience:
“If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.”
What in the actual hell is this? Yeah, I started writing my first novel when I was in seventh grade. It was an action-adventure genre novel, a cheap rip-off/mash-up of commando-unit fiction and The Karate Kid. So I don’t know what Boudinot means by “taking writing seriously,” but I certainly wasn’t writing serious work. Maybe he means “putting in the hours every day,” working in a disciplined manner on craft and style.
“By the time you were a teenager”?
I didn’t do that until I was in college. Sometimes, if I’m honest with myself, I feel like I didn’t do that until grad school. And between you and me, Internet, I don’t think I really even figured out how to write “seriously” until I was a couple of years out of grad school.
I think Boudinot would agree with me here: “After I received my degree in 1999,” he writes at the end of his essay, “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.”
So unless Boudinot was some sort of prodigy and finished graduate school when he was 12 years old, I don’t think he decided “to take writing seriously” as a teenager, either. Which is too bad — apparently, Boudinot is “probably not going to make it” as a writer.
And finally — or, firstly — there’s the thing that set me off to begin with:
“Writers are born with talent.”
Which I think is absolute horseshit.
I’ll grant you, there’s still a lot of debate about this. There are plenty of serious, respectable writers — some of them former writing teachers, a few of them even current writing teachers — who believe that writing cannot be taught, that MFA programs and writing workshops are a waste of everyone’s time and money.
“Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t,” Boudinot writes, and there are plenty who agree with him.
But I don’t.
At least Boudinot concedes “that someone with minimal talent [can] work her ass off and maximize it and write something great.” And sure, I in turn will concede “that writers are not all born equal.”
But I believe that every person has the capacity to tell a compelling story, whether they have any “talent” or not, and my job — my pleasure — is to help each writer I work with find that story and tell it well.
But I’ll agree with Boudinot on this:
Not every writer has the “talent” for teaching writing, and if, by the time you finish your own graduate degree in writing, you haven’t decided to take the education you received seriously — if you’re not a serious reader of student work and you complain about having to read a lot of rough writing on your way to finding the gems — well, you’re probably not going to make it as a teacher.
Though I wonder why you’d waste your valuable time writing an essay complaining about it. Because frankly (and this is my woodshed speech to you, Boudinot), “It’s not important that people think you’re smart.”