That Article That Everyone Read This Weekend
About two days ago, I saw a link to an article called “Thing I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One,” which I dutifully clicked, read through, and enjoyed a fair amount. Then I scrolled down and looked at the Facebook comments, and saw that a number of people were, to put it mildly, losing their utter shit. People were declaring the writer, Ryan Boudinot, a horrible person, a bitter old hag, and there was a great deal of discussion about how he represented what was the absolute worst about a certain kind of writing (read: literary), and I think a lot of people were having some PTSD flashbacks to moments in college writing classes where they were told that this wasn’t the place to write genre fiction.
First of all, writing advice is highly subjective. Some of it is going to be useful to a person, some of it is going to not be useful – and that depends on which person you talk to. If someone read the Boudinot article and promptly began frothing at the mouth – hey, fine. I do that when I read shit by Annie Lamott. (side note: a lot of people really like Annie Lamott’s writing about writing. I find it tedious, idiotic, and like gumdrops for a certain kind of lazy writer – but again, hey, that’s subjective. My utter loathing for Lamott doesn’t mean that she can’t be incredibly insightful, inspiring, and useful for another writer – and sometimes that other writer might even be someone I like and respect! Because the process is different for every damn person)
I’m a product of both an undergraduate writing program and an MFA program. I’ve done my time, I got over a dozen short stories published in literary journals, and I absolutely feel like my MFA program made a profound impact in me as a writer. And now I’m the published author of three (four in August!) urban fantasy novels, which means that I will never (NEVER) be considered for bigtime fantasy awards, and I will have the pleasure of seeing the reflexive “ew” face on any writer of serious fantasy and sci-fi when I’m initially introduced to them.
In what way is not the most hilarious artistic journey ever? Seriously, it actually is.
Not only am I an urban-fantasy writing hack, but I teach literature classes to college students as my day job – how fantastic is that? I get to force Kafka and Tolstoy and Hurston and Achebe down the gullets of nigh-indifferent undergrads on a daily basis, and then laugh an evil laugh. (plus my actual amused laugh as we get to have conversations about Kafka and Tolstoy and Hurston and Achebe, and what is useful and interesting and, yes, fucking pleasurable about reading these things.)
So I perhaps I have a different view on the Boudinot article. Did I agree with all of it? No. But I enjoyed good portions of it, and I felt like chunks were useful and had resonance. Which is why I’m taking this highly unusual step of adding actual content to my blog by responding to this, rather than just posting another Twitter conversation that involved a highly amusing poop joke. (don’t worry, I’ll get right back to that next time)
Let me go through a few of the Boudinot points.
1. “Writers are born with talent.”
Well, I’d say that caused a good chunk of the freakouts. But Boudinot isn’t saying anything particularly groundbreaking here. In fact, Stephen King said pretty much the same damn thing in On Writing. And I agreed with King, and I agreed with Boudinot.
Does this mean that talent is anointed, and you shall know the coming of an author by certain signs and miracles? No. Writing is goddamn hard work, and it takes years of getting it wrong, of going back and working on it, and honing the damn craft. And, yes, that’s if you were actually born with talent. Talent doesn’t mean that this is going to be easy – it just means that you have that something – that way of looking at the world and conveying something specific in prose, that extra flair with language, that thing that set you apart from the other kids in third grade writing exercises.
Anyone can get an undergraduate degree in creative writing (I did it, it wasn’t that hard), or an MFA in writing (believe me, there are plenty of terrible writers with that degree – I know, I graduated with a few). Take enough classes, put in enough work, and any person can become a decent writer. Being a good writer is something different – and you know the difference when you read one. Doesn’t mean that they were perfect starting out, or that it’s an easier path, but it does mean that when they put in the work and the effort, the outcome at the end is different.
Honestly, why are we having such an extreme reaction to this statement? Do you just think that Boudinot came off as a dick when he wrote it? I’d call him a bit frosty, maybe, and definitely still reeling from a few years within the MFA system, but he’s not saying anything that we haven’t all thought a bit before.
Let me put it differently: it’s clear that Tiger Woods’s dad was hardcore about teaching his son to play golf – perhaps in a way that we might not point to as an ideal parenting choice. But even with all of that training, would Tiger Woods have reached the pinnacle that he did without the benefit of having been born with some talent? Writing isn’t that different.
2. “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.”
Boudinot’s very next sentence is an equivocation on that statement, which I find utterly hilarious. The man isn’t an idiot – make a broad, sweeping statement (even one softened by the word “probably” rather than “definitely”) and you’re going to see nothing except a series of examples that poke holes in it (Boudinot even offers one himself – Haruki Murakami). But in the broad sense, is he wrong? No, he really isn’t.
RESTRAIN YOUR FREAKOUT FOR FIVE FUCKING SECONDS.
Being serious about writing doesn’t mean that you are a published author.
If I have to pinpoint the moment when I got serious about writing, I’d point to when I was in college – which I suppose could technically be called still being a teenager, but only barely. However, I wrote stories when I was little, I always knew that I was better at writing than the other kids in my class, and I liked the process of writing enough that I did it with some regularity.
But I got serious about writing around the age of nineteen. And then it took me another decade until I got a book published. Serious doesn’t equal published – maybe it’ll take you four or five decades – doesn’t mean that you aren’t serious. I think Boudinot kind of shot himself in the foot to a degree by specifying the word “teenager,” but, hey, tiny quibbles.
If anything, I find Boudinot’s most important statement to be under that – “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.”
Honestly, hell fucking yeah, Boudinot. If you want to write, my feeling is that you’ve got to have a relationship with books, and an enjoyment of language. Again – it doesn’t mean publishing, people. And he isn’t even talking about the action of writing anymore.
3. If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
OF THE MFA PROGRAM. Also, side-note – yes, I utterly co-sign with Boudinot here. When I was a college student I bitched endlessly about my workload, never even dreaming how good I currently had it. When I entered my MFA program, I had just blown out of law school, and I couldn’t believe how much fucking free time I had to write. Compared to law school, the MFA requirements felt like “laze on a field of beautiful flowers for half the day, reveling in nature – now read half a book, write three sentences, and roll into class to marinate in the beauty of language. Then we’ll head to the bar for some beer!”
I might be exaggerating slightly, but seriously. If you can’t write when you’re an MFA student, I’m sorry, but you’re never going to be able to write. Writing while balancing a full-time job and a spouse and possibly kids and something approaching a social life is terribly hard— wait, hold on, I think Boudinot actually covered this portion:
“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. 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.” (emphasis mine)
Thank you, Boudinot. That put it very nicely.
4. If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
There are people who only want to write, and don’t like to read. At all. It still blows my mind.
Boudinot mentions four books in this section: Infinite Jest, 2666, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Great Gatsby. I think people went nuts over this because they took this to mean that what they liked to read (I assume fantasy and sci-fi, just a guess) would be judged by this writer as not being serious. Hey, maybe Boudinot is a snob. I don’t know him, I can’t judge. (though I will note that his statement that: “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. Students who claimed to enjoy “all sorts” of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. 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.” made me nod very sadly in understanding – I, too, get very sick of teaching lazy readers)
But I think that, as writers, we all need to regularly challenge ourselves as readers. And this means reading out of our comfort zones.
Does it mean you have to pick up Tolstoy? No. But it might mean giving Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice a try. Or after you read four books that were right in your wheelhouse, kick back with Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Being serious about your reading means that, in addition to the act of reading for pleasure, you also consider whether something will stretch your horizons, or challenge you as a reader and a person.
Reading for enjoyment is critical and important. But sometimes you don’t know whether you might enjoy something or not. Reading something outside your comfort zone might end in disappointment, or it might end with excitement and discovery.
And along those lines – I’ve read many moving accounts by people who were, at various points in their lives, told that what they loved wasn’t serious or important, and I’m sorry about that. But maybe instead of deciding to then be just as much of a dick back to the genre that you felt was a dick to you (read: literary fiction & classics), you can try, you know, not being a dick. Don’t take a shit on a book or a genre just because you’ve never read it – that applies to the classics (though, like Boudinot, I agree that this isn’t a real genre – what it does mean is that it has held up to a certain scrutiny of time and has become part of a canon of well-regarded books) just as much as to YA.
There are shitty books everywhere you want to look. I’ve read crappy epic fantasy and I’ve read crappy literary fiction. I’ve read crappy YA and books that were touted as classics that I’ve loathed. But I’ve also read books in all those areas, and more, that I loved, that moved me, that challenged me, and that I recommend unceasingly.
Scoffing at the very idea of reading a certain type of book shouldn’t give you any additional street cred in your preferred genre. That applies to fantasy and science fiction just as equally as it does to those in literary fiction.
5. No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.
“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 is harsh. He’s also right.
Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss is about the incestuous relationship she had as an adult with her father. It is moving, stunning, viscerally painful, and utterly incredible in the way that it is written. I read it in a non-fiction class during my MFA, and I still own the book. Not because it’s about incest, but because of the writing.
I read more than a few stories by classmates in my MFA program (and turned in a few myself) that were just about similar topics – shitty childhoods and periodic instances of molestation. Some were about rape. Some were about death. A story isn’t good or strong because of its topic, or even because of the *truth* of your topic – it’s good or strong because of the writing. And if someone is a bad writer, then even the most heartbreaking and painful topic will not save it.
There was a guy in my MFA program who was an absolutely painful writer. And every story he turned in was the same – about a vastly inappropriate psychosexual relationship between a gay man and his mother. The first one we all read, knew it was about his life, and tried to be tender and gentle as we addressed the difficult topic of trying to help him address the problems within the story that were preventing him from being able to say anything true or moving in the story (no plot, one-dimensional characters, painfully obvious attempts at symbol, verb tense, etc).
Then came the second story, which was about the same topic as the first. And the third story. And the fourth. And this continued for the entire two years that I spent in that program. Taking a workshop with this man (who had survived what was apparently an utter horror of a childhood to become a really standout and great guy, but just not a good writer), became a chore, because he wasn’t there to hone his writing – he was there to tell the story of his vastly inappropriate psychosexual relationship with his mother.
Having a painful life (or even an interesting life) doesn’t necessarily make someone a good writer. It’s a painful, yet true, thing.
6. You don’t need my help to get published.
I totally disagree with what Boudinot is saying here in its entirety.
Agents and editors have a place, and an important one, in the changing publishing landscape. The idea that we should all turn to each other and form our own little self-publishing communes is utter madness, and I think that Boudinot is clinging tightly to his own inner back-to-nature 70s hippie. (full disclosure: I don’t know Ryan Boudinot, so I don’t know whether he is even in the right age-range to be a back-to-nature 70s hippie. I simply have my suspicions.)
7. It’s not important that people think you’re smart.
YES. THANK YOU. I’m just going to copy, paste, and then cosign.
“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. But writing that’s motivated by the desire to give the reader a pleasurable experience really is best. 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. Those who didn’t get it were stuck on the notion that their writing was a tool designed to procure my validation. 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.”
I wonder if people’s response to this article would’ve been demonstrably different if this had been point #1 rather than #7.
8. It’s important to woodshed.
I agree on this one. I think the woodshed, where unpublished novels go to die, was less of a problem back in the days before easy self-publishing. Self-publishing has its benefits, which I won’t deny, but I think there are more than a few authors (myself included) who are desperately grateful that their early efforts died unsung deaths, and never saw the light of day.
It’s hard to let a book die, because you’ve spent so long on it and believed so hard in it. But not everything that hits 100K deserves to be read, which is the danger of easy self-publishing.
In total – everything is subjective, and nothing moreso than writing advice. Just because we disagree (or agree) on whether an article has merit usually doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot. If you disagreed with Boudinot about everything – fine. But disagree for your own reasons – not because of various sentences that got posted out of context, or because of reflexive defensiveness.