Monday, March 02, 2015

Ryan Boudinot's Essay on MFA Programs

A few days ago I came across a link to Ryan Boudinot's February 27, 2015 essay in The Stranger, "Things I Can No Longer Say About MFA Writing Programs Now that I No Longer Teach in One," on Facebook, and immediately read it based on the vehemence of the responses on the post thread that linked to it. Most of the commenters took umbrage at Boudinot's contemptuous and sometimes cruel tone, at his regal pronouncements, and at his dismissive attitudes towards student writers, and I did not disagree with any of these criticisms. Boudinot is harsh and dismissive of all but the most gifted student writers, suggesting that he probably should not have been (or ever again be) anywhere near an MFA program, including the very best ones out there, or students of any sort for that matter. His comments, in fact, convey a level of disdain for students that suggests they will not be entering a welcoming, constructive space, however critical, when studying with him. Yet what also struck me reading his byline was that he leads an organization called Seattle City of Literature, which, I learned online, hosts an annual book festival celebrating the kinds of small presses that often publish the very sorts of MFA-alumni writers he is writing about, and which probably attracts not just readers, but writers who aspire to study at creative writing at the graduate level. I posted a short comment supportive of Boudinot's critics, but said to myself that I'd add a few more comments here.

Boudinot's key points in his article, based on his teaching experience and writing career, are:
  1. Writers are born with talent.
  2. If you weren't serious about writing by adolescence, you don't have a chance.
  3. If you complain about no time to write, drop out.
  4. If you aren't a serious reader, don't expect anyone to read your work.
  5. No one cares about your life issues, in written form, if you are a bad writer.
  6. You don't need the professor's help to get published.
  7. It's not important that people think that you're smart.
  8. It's important to woodshed.
On one level, a few of these at least sound sensible enough on the surface. Starting with number 8, of course you should spend time writing and polishing your work, though all writers do so at varying speeds, with some emerging in print fairly polished more quickly than others. But there's no set timeline to this process, and it all depends upon what someone produces, whether there's a market for it, luck, and so on. Number 7 also is hardly controversial, though it is the case that certain writers, particularly white male writers, do receive outsized attention based on how smart they are thought to be, and women and writers of color, or working-class writers, whom Boudinot does not discuss, are not infrequently read and discussed as less "smart" or "intellectual." (In fact, any mention of race, gender or class is missing from Boudinot's article.) The burden of being thought to be less smart, or less intelligent or intellectual, and thus not taken as seriously, is a real counterpoint to what Boudinot is talking about. As a teacher I try to keep in mind the varying forms of intelligence and sophistication students may bring to works; what might not look so "smart" to one person might be really impressive if viewed from a different perspective.

Thinking in particular about the writer that Boudinot mentions, David Foster Wallace, he was talented, prolific, and wrote at least one book that will stand the test of time. But critics frequently invoke his brilliance--his philosophy degree often comes up, as does the complexity of his prose, etc.--specifically in the service of highlighting his intellectual power, and given how highly he is regarded among students, it makes sense that some of them, reading his work, would want to emulate him and impress in the very ways he appears to. I find much of his work after the early stories in The Girl With Curious Hair and a few of the later ones in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men unpalatable, and Infinite Jest, which I ploughed through to supervise a student's research project, was brainy but unbearable (with terribly written black vernacular). I have taught many of students drawn specifically to the "smartness" of Wallace, Leo Tolstoy, Donald Barthelme, Jorge Luis Borges, etc. That said, a writer's intellectual firepower may be a primary consideration for some readers, as with certain kinds of experimental writing, for example. For a writing teacher, it's incumbent to discuss with a student if cleverness is becoming an end in itself or is overwhelming other aspects of the work, and there's a way to do this that can be productive and need not be harmful.

Boudinot's 6th point also is reasonable. While many writers I know have benefited from a professor's or mentor's assistance, many have not. Some of the very fortunate ones have been given jobs or placed in them, had their worked shared with or selected for journals, agents and publishers, and so on. The majority of writers I've known, however, have mostly functioned on their own or through the help of writing peers when it comes solely to publication (careers are another matter). As a professor I try to help students whenever I can by alerting them to opportunities that cross my desk, publicly praising their work when it merits it as a means of helping it gain wider attention, writing letters of recommendation or offering to serve as a reference on their behalf, and so on, but also I do this for fellow writers as well. In terms of publishing, I have managed to publish my all my books without the intercession of a professor or writing mentor, though a number of them have supplied various kinds of support along the way, including blurbs, letters of recommendation, and so on, and I certainly could not have gotten the jobs I have, or tenure, or other good things like prizes I've enjoyed, without their help. Perhaps among some MFA students there is an expectation that professors will help them gain publication, but I think this may also result from the economic pressures most students in graduate writing programs, and graduate school in general, now face. Given how costly many programs are, especially private ones, and how little financial support many institutions provide, it makes sense that some students might (wrongly) expect this to be part of their educational compact. What Boudinot says about apprising students of the expanding array of publication options is key, and when I used to teach the undergraduate-level "Situation of Writing" class at Northwestern, I regularly relayed this new publishing landscape to the creative writing majors, but I also shared it and continue to do so with my MFA students when possible.

Boudinot's other points, however, are much more problematic. The annals of literature testify to the fact that not every writer is "born with talent"; what separates those who get published from those who don't is often persistence and luck. Sometimes the most talented writers may struggle while others with far less talent, but more skill, connections, etc., soar. Not to single out anyone, but let's take a writer like E. L. James. I did scan Fifty Shades of Grey--I admit it, out of fascination with its success--and I can say without hesitation that it is not well written, or original, or, in my mind, all that interesting. I can see how it drew a large readership, because it plugs into certain conventions of romance and erotica, with "edge," though I admit to being baffled at its global success. James is a writer, but does she have "talent"? She certainly has a talent for drawing readers and selling books, but I don't think this is what Boudinot means. Was she born with the "talent" she does have, or did she learned to develop it? Could others? She did have a desire to see her work published, first online, and then in print, and the determination to see the publication process through to its end, which is impressive. That is a talent. But what role did luck and context, let alone platform (online first, then in print, etc.) play in it selling millions of copies to readers across the world?

You could argue that E. L. James, or a writer like her, was unlikely to apply to an MFA program, but I have taught writers who both possess a talent-and-skill set akin to hers, and at least one who wanted to write work like hers. I was not dismissive, because as I have told students in the past, there are many reasons people write, and aiming to make money is certainly one of them. Or, to flip that, as Dr. Samuel Johnson reported says in Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." It is also the case, I think it's fair to say, that anybody, under the right circumstances, can become a writer, of some sort, though the Toni Morrisons or William Faulkners--or E. L. Jameses, let alone P. D. Jameses and Henry Jameses--will be few and far between. But in response to Boudinot, I'd add that any writer who is serious enough to apply to and enroll in an MFA program, whatever her talent or his skill set, can benefit from the kinds of experiences that a workshop environment, properly conducted, can provide.

To respond to his other points, you can start writing at any point; it helps if you have been reading for a while and are aware of certain conventions, but this can be a hindrance too, in that predecessors can overshadow or stunt your original voice. Encouraging reading, encouraging the reading of writers that students might otherwise not read, encouraging your own wider reading, should all be part of the MFA experience, though writing teachers and students approach this in different ways. I remember a few MFA classmates complaining about having to read Dante, for example, and I have had students complain about having to read work they don't like, or work that's stylistically different from their work, but over the years I also have repeatedly had students thank me directly, and in their evaluations, for the broad range of material we read, some of it their first introduction to writers that others have read since their adolescence. Over the years when I have taught undergraduate and graduate creative writing classes, I often have asked students to write their favorite book, their least favorite book, and the book they're currently reading not for a class. There are certainly trends (I can recall the Harry Potter moment, for example), but I am always amazed at how wide a range most oft the students in my classes are reading.

Boudinot's comments assume that everyone comes from a similar background and has had the same access to literature, which also suggests that "writers" can only come from a particularly narrow vein of experience. Yet as the history of literature, especially American literature, shows, writers can come from all kinds of backgrounds and places, which is one reason that our literature over the last 125 years, if viewed broadly and not simply in terms of what has been valorized in New York publishing houses and high-end organs, has become so vibrant. When Horace Engdahl of the Nobel Committee criticized American literature's provinciality, I don't think he was truly looking at what American literature really has been and is. A writer like Jimmy Santiago Baca, who did not learn to read until prison; or the great, recently deceased Philip Levine, who was working in a factory when he was a teenager, and did not grow up with a house full of books, are two who according to Boudinot's prescription, could not have become writers because of their late starts. They did, and many others have as well.

Boudinot's comment about writing students complaining about not having the time to write also strikes me as unfair; having taught in two programs with large numbers of students who have to work full or part-time, have families, and may face financial challenges, it seems both ingenuous and ungenerous to assume that students will be able, at least at first, to find the necessary time to write. In my experience, most enrolled in MFA programs I've taught in do--but they still may complain about their struggles to write. This is no different from established writers who complain as well. Again, encouraging writers to make time to write, helping them to establish schedules to write, and helping to teach them how to be productive when they are no longer in an MFA environment are all crucial. I had to learn many of these things myself, and sometimes it is an issue of circumstances. When I got a job back home and was no longer commuting, and when I began teaching once again on a semester schedule as opposed to a trimester one, even though had far larger classes than in the past, I was able to get much more writing done, and more swiftly than ever. Thus the new book. In any case, I try to be understanding when students discuss their schedules, their various life challenges, and their ability to juggling everything so that they can focus on their writing. Figuring out what will work to get your work done is an easier process for some than others.

I'll ending by noting that I am always amazed by certain texts that rise to wider public acclaim, but it is probably true that if good writing will make anything at least worth glancing at, great writing can make almost anything worth sticking through part of the way through. Bad writing about uninteresting things, whatever the genre, is probably best kept for the writer's benefit, but there is a way to alert students that you don't find either the subject matter or the writing compelling. Even then, the work may catch the zeitgeist, however repetitive you find it, as the number of highly praised nonfiction and fiction books about highly educated, wealthy young artist(e)s indicates. The point is that if you can help the student improve a work, no matter what its genre, if you're employed in an MFA program, you aim to do so. That does not mean the student will listen to you, or will understand your advice, or appreciate it. That doesn't mean the student will grasp what beneficial and less beneficial help you and her classmates are offering. But it is part of your job. Constructive, useful criticism isn't always easy to figure out or give, but it's not impossible. Wishing that students who write about their suffering had suffered more is the sign of a crank; there is a place for people like that, but an MFA program (or any classroom) is not it. Which brings me to my final point: perhaps anyone can be writer, if not a best-selling or award-winning or literature-resetting one, but Boudinot makes it clear that everyone clearly cannot be a teacher, no matter how talented and well read they are.

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