“Be the best literary citizen you can be.”

J.C. Sevcik has written a response to “the Insensitive, Shit-Stirring Rant” (his words) by Ryan Boudinot a week and a half ago. Which, you know, big deal — a lot of us wrote responses. But Sevcik’s is interesting because it appears in the same publication, The Stranger, that published Boudinot’s offensive listicle ten days ago (and followed it up with a lame, self-congratulatory “interview” celebrating all the negative publicity they were getting). And it’s interesting because Sevcik is one of the “Real Deal” students Boudinot praised, and he’s still calling foul on his former mentor.

Also, I should say that I saw Sevcik speak on a panel about memoir at last year’s AWP in Seattle, and he was amazing. I left that panel inspired, and I admire Sevcik’s work.

So I read his response, and it really is interesting — it really does say something new, something few of the rest of us were saying.

There’s a lot of apologist rhetoric in the first half of Sevcik’s response, explaining Boudinot even while criticizing him, even claiming in a few places that Boudinot was closer to correctness than we were giving him credit for. Personally, I think Sevcik goes too easy on his old teacher at first. But I don’t fault him for it; I understand that impulse, and I approve of it.

In fact, I want to call attention to one particular passage:

I’d like to instead redirect the conversation toward what Ryan’s piece can teach us about being a part of a larger literary community. I’d also like to explain why people who are talking about trying to oust him from his role as executive director of Seattle City of Literature are misguided.

Regarding that last bit: I’ve gotten a LOT of traffic here to my own website because of my response to Boudinot, and because my response got linked to by one of those groups calling for his removal as City of Lit director. For the record, I am not affiliated with that group and have no opinion one way or the other regarding Boudinot’s role with Seattle City of Lit. I do, however, love Seattle and Seattle writers — they’re the literary siblings to my own vibrant writing community here in Portland — and I fully support Seattle’s efforts to become a City of Lit, regardless who’s leading the effort. (Visit the Seattle City of Lit website to find out more.)

So, you’re welcome to read through the first half or read past it, whichever you prefer. But definitely get to the second half, where the really great text is:

Paddle your own canoe. Work your side of the street. Assume everyone else is an autonomous adult doing the same. Be the best teacher you can be. Be the best student you can be. Be the best writer you can be. Be the best literary citizen you can be. Treat everyone as kindly and generously as you can possibly manage. And when you fail, buy them some whiskey and say you’re sorry.

Be the best teacher you can be. Be the best student you can be.

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with my students about my teaching style, and they guessed — correctly — that my approach to teaching was to keep acting like a student. We’re all in it for the learning, gang, and I love that.

And:

Be the best literary citizen you can be. 

As readers and writers and editors and publishers and teachers and students: how often we all need that reminder.

And then there’s this line:

Excellence is important to aspire to, but so is acceptance. It is not enough to be excellent writers. We must also be kind and generous and patient, accepting and inclusive. We must also be excellent people.

Excellence is important to aspire to, but so is acceptance.

God. Can I just repeat that one more time?

Excellence is important to aspire to, but so is acceptance.

This is as close to the pith of my approach to teaching — especially creative writing — as I can think of. I push my students to strive for excellence, their version as well as mine. But (and this is just my style; other teachers have other styles) I feel I can’t push students unless I first accept their work and their ambitions on their own terms. Each writer must define herself, each writer must find his own limits, and only then can we work together to push beyond those limits and find their own ideal of excellence.

Yes, there’s plenty of need for tough love, plenty of need to teach students the harsh lessons of criticism and rejection. If we don’t do it, the writing world will. But it is equally important to support the things writers do well, on their own terms, however much it might differ from our own preferences. It is equally important for we writers and as writing teachers to be patient, to be as generous with our time and our efforts as we can afford to be, and, ultimately, to ourselves accept that there are myriad different kinds of writers, and there’s room for all of us.

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One thought on ““Be the best literary citizen you can be.”

  1. I found this paragraph interesting:

    “The idea of demanding excellence from one’s self and others is a noble one and necessary on some level if we want to continue to produce excellent literature. But in a capitalist country and a paid education model where students are customers who feel entitled to some measure of respect and customer service, the place for a punitive pedagogy is probably relegated to competitive programs with endowments where pupils arrive prepared for cutthroat competition and expect to have excellence exacted from their soft fleshy insides by means of ruthless workshopping and merciless feedback, not a progressive institution with an ideology of universal acceptance like the one where Ryan and I worked together.”

    Actually I found the whole thing interesting, especially the way it made me nod my head from time to time, and shake my head from time to time. Every thoughtful piece of writing ought to do that. The paragraph about excellence that you cited above is particularly telling. I still think Ryan Boudinot’s piece was 85% wrong and 15% unwise, but whatever…

    The following ramble isn’t really a propos anything.

    Ever since ‘free verse’ was invented (I think it was Robert Frost who likened writing free verse to playing tennis with the net lowered) and ever since Kerouac refused to edit his text, people have thought writing was easy. Actually, you can probably take it back further than that… William Topaz McGonagall, with amazing hubris, wrote the greatest bad poetry in the English language EVER and did so by the bucket-load… Thomas Ellwood probably felt that his ‘Davideis’ was comparable to his friend Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’… I don’t know. Now we have the facility of the blogosphere and self-publishing not only is it ‘easy’ to write, it is ‘easy’ to put it ‘out there’. I know, I know, it’s a common complaint that this facility of publishing (in the broadest sense of the word) lowers the general standard of writing, and it is a complaint that is not without validity. But on the other hand ain’t it grand that so many people actually want to write, want to express their creativity by writing!

    Writers who work hard at their craft are not an elite, they’re just the one’s who have realised it’s worth working hard at. You and I both know how satisfying it was to put the final pull-stop (period) at the end of, say ‘Lupa’ or ‘Hagridden’, knowing that the product of our labour was a good one. That’s something we try to pass on to others who speak to us about writing – you especially do so professionally, it’s your metier. However, If there is anything that makes me think that Boudinot’s approach (or even Sevcik’s apologia in part, but only in part) is off track more than a little, it’s the sense I’m getting that the ‘tough love’ teaching errs to far towards ‘one size fits all’, and that those who fall by the wayside are those who ain’t fit to be Marines anyway. What happened – I ask – to balancing needs and abilities?

    By ‘needs’ I don’t mean ‘neediness’, by the way. I used to belong, lo these many years, to a poetry forum. Poetry of all kinds and all standards was posted there, from the sublime to the ‘Cor blimey!’* In the case of the latter, the poet often had a coterie of friends who would comment “Awesome write, man!”. From time to time I used to offer honest, kindly-meant, constructive criticism. Occasionally it was kindly-received. More often than not the reaction was a case of “Oh uncool! This nasty person is crushing me! Rally round me, friends!”, and sure enough all the ‘awesome write’ gang would come and comment, “You horrible person, if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything! There, there, don’t listen to that awful Marie Marshall. What does she know anyway.”
    *Interestingly, the most common themes written about were: how wonderful Jesus is; how wonderful US service people in Iraq are; vampires; it sucks being a misunderstood teenager and I’m going to self-harm with a razor. I kid you not. Some of these poems were actually good.

    It’s 5am on Wednesday, and I have forgotten where I was going with this. Anyhow, it was interesting to read your post above, and Sevcik’s article. Thank you for drawing it to my attention. By the way – this isn’t just flattery** – you are the writer to whom I pay the most attention, when it comes to writing about writing. You and Stephen King. And I don’t write like either of you.
    **It IS flattery, but it isn’t JUST flattery.

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