this article has been floating around facebook: Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One by Ryan Boudinot. As a creative writing teacher at the (lowly? modest?) undergraduate level, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on his assertions:
“Writers are born with talent.”
Yes, of course! But I think that EVERYONE is born with some degree, however small, of writing talent. If you read Gregory Orr’s Four Temperaments, I think you’ll find that everyone is born with a propensity for one of those. Its a matter of developing what they have and cultivating in them what they don’t have.
Often, in my creative writing classes, the students that seem to be “natural talents” at writing have actually been nurtured as writers before they were writers. A student who had a mother who was book-crazy, a student who had a father as a preacher, a student who had a grandmother who told fantastic lies–they are picking up on language somewhere.
Every person, if they work hard enough and long enough, can write well. Not everyone has the ability to become the next Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot–just like everyone can learn to play basketball but not everyone is going to be the next Michael Jordon.
So much of finding success as a writer has to do with persistence and reading (a ton) and writing (a ton).
As much as young writers love to be told that writing talent is just something you are born with (because then why work for it? and also it means you are special, gifted, above the rest), I don’t find this idea useful as a creative writing teacher. I instead believe that every student has some measure of talent that can be cultivated and some genre of writing that they can excel in, if they work hard enough.
“If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.”
I think that there are So very many exceptions, this broad statement doesn’t hold up. Maybe someone never tried writing as a child or teenager–because of economic / educational disadvantage, troubled family life, whatever– that does not mean that they don’t have the natural ability and gifting with words necessary to become a very successful writer.
“If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.”
I honestly agree with this one–you’ll never have More time to write then when you are in a writing program where most of your job is To Write! If you don’t have time to write, its because you aren’t making the time (and if you aren’t making the time, is it really that important to you?). You can’t expect to become better at something you rarely do or practice.
“If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.”
I agree with this one too. If you are struggling in my creative writing class, its likely because you’ve not read a thing I’ve assigned all semester. Reading is the best way to learn to write, the absolute best. Read much and read often.
“No one cares about your problems if you’re a **** (bad)*** writer.”
Not necessarily true, in life, but probably true in memoirs–if you have a story worth telling, don’t automatically have people discount it because the writing is poor.
“You don’t need my help to get published.”
I’m not a big fan of self-publishing, and I do think that connections you make in writing programs are valuable. But mostly I’m an optimist–I think that getting published has to do with the quality of your work and your persistence.
“It’s not important that people think you’re smart.”
“It’s important to woodshed.”
I agree with this too. Its ok if every poem doesn’t get published or even read. Its ok if books worth of poems are never published. Everything you write goes into those future poems, future books. I wrote probably four times the amount of poems that are in Keeping Me Still, so many of which never saw the light of day. Much of a writers work is done alone, without any public notice or acclaim.
So ex-MFA teacher guy, I’d say I mostly agree with you, or at least about half-so. What do y’all think?