Tuesday, March 17, 2015

MFA Prof Raises Writers' Wrath, Incites Ire

Two weeks ago a former MFA professor named Ryan Boudinot published what can only be called a diatribe about MFA programs in a Seattle alternative paper.

The article, in which Boudinot skewers the majority of students who enter MFA programs - and more specifically his own students - drew not only 211 irate comments, but a counter article from one of his students pithily entitled "I Was the MFA Student Who Made Ryan Boudinot Cry: A Response to the Insensitive, Shit-Stirring Rant That Made a Lot of People—Including Me—So Mad."

Having never taught in a graduate writing program, I can't comment on what they do, or don't, accomplish. However, having taught in a number of other disciplines - artistic and academic -  I can address some of Boudinot's academic requirements for success in the arts.

1) Talent, as Boudinot says, is required to be a good artist - of any type. No matter how many years of training you have under your belt, if you don't have that ineffable quality of talent (which is like porn; you know it when you see it) you can't succeed at being good. You can, however, succeed commercially. There are plenty of atrocious writers out there who have earned big bucks because they had a marketable idea. (I'm not naming names, here. Just saying ...)

2) I take issue with Boudinot's assertion that taking writing seriously in your teens is required to be a successful writer. Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, began to write at age 40. James Michener wrote his debut novel, Tales of the South Pacific (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948) at age 40. Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News, was 53 when she published her first full work of fiction, the short story collection Heart Songs. And at 41 years of age Mark Twain published his first novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ... the list goes on and on. Writing at an early age is not necessary; what is necessary is to love reading. (And since when do teenagers take anything seriously anyhow ... apart from sex, that is.)

3) "If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out." This complaint should have been modified as "If you complain about not having time to do the work I assign you, please drop out." All grad programs are demanding, and students should be aware of that before entering one. I am with Boudinot on this point. However, if you are a writer who is not in school, and have a day job and/or a family, feel free to complain liberally. The only mature adults who have enough time to write are either independently wealthy or in solitary confinement.

4) "If you aren't a serious reader, don't expect anyone to read what you write." Again, not true. "Hard" books are not necessarily good ones. More to the point, writers should read everything - the good, the bad and the really bad. Dissecting bad writing is just as valuable as dissecting good writing. Developing an "ear" means you should have an intuitive grasp of what sounds good, and what doesn't.

5) "It's important to woodshed." By this, Boudinot means that it is not always the best idea to rush into publication. Your writing will benefit, he says, if you take some time off, let it simmer for a while, then go back to it. I couldn't agree more.  

Although Boudinot has made some valid points, it is more than apparent that he is a mean-spirited man whose heart is two sizes too small. Still, it is worth reading his article if only to give some context to the counter article written by his student, J.C. Sevcik ("I Was the MFA Student Who Made Ryan Boudinot Cry"). Sevcik makes a lot of good points about writing, and about MFA programs - their benefits as well as their drawbacks.

On a personal note, I would like to point out that I did not begin writing seriously until I was in my 40s. My first novel was published by Random House when I was 50. And not only did I never take a graduate course in writing, the only writing class I took as an undergraduate was a single workshop in poetry. (I think I took a few English classes in high school. As I recall, they were okay.)

For those who enjoy poking fun at MFA programs, click HERE to read The Toast's hilarious spoof of MFA workshops.

Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One

By Ryan Boudinot, The Stranger, 2/27/15

I recently left a teaching position in a master of fine arts creative-writing program. I had a handful of students whose work changed my life. The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers. And then there were students whose work was so awful that it literally put me to sleep. Here are some things I learned from these experiences.

Writers are born with talent.

Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don't. Some people have more talent than others. That's not to say that someone with minimal talent can't work her ass off and maximize it and write something great, or that a writer born with great talent can't squander it. It's simply that writers are not all born equal. The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

If you didn't decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you're probably not going to make it.

There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one's 30s or 40s is probably too late. 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.

Read the rest of Boudinot's diatribe HERE

Read Sevcik's retort HERE.


  1. Wow! I've just read Boudinot's article and the counter response from J.C. Sevcik. I must confess, I found Boudinot's article not encouraging at all, especially in my non-native English speaker wannabe writer status. But of course, reading Sevcik, made me feel better as well as your blog post. So as a person who is willing to expect all barriers and rejects from this literal world, I must say, I'm more determined than ever to become a good writer!

  2. I somewhat agree with Boudinot on this. Not everybody is a writer. Some have the natal intelligence and personality that comes across and some do not. Much craft and scheduling CAN be taught, but writer's are genetically gifted for the task. It takes and effort to develop the skills, but the way it is put together and the thought behind it is what makes classics work. MarkTwain, Vonnegut, Doug Adams, Poe, Garrison Keillor … all their work is not gold, but you know then when you read them.

  3. Interesting on both sides. Academia ( however formulated as MBA programmes or whatever) is very unforgiving of impulse or exasperation. J.C. Sevcik's plea and exposition about Ryan Boudinot's actions and commitment speak rather more sanely. The snowflakery of contemporary educational institutions sometimes benefits from a little acid, perhaps not in the eyes. Sevcik's recognition of Boudinot's contribution to his development, and the , yes, flattery of believing that a committed student taken seriously enough to beat, and beat up, is stripped to mettle ( or metal) and nothing more valuable can be given to the wannabe writer. Its a flagellating profession. Baring the soul ( and all writers do in one way or another) needs a fearless courage. Survival is tested by those teachers aware of what lies ahead.

    My daughter ( in an even more punitive profession- a violinist) attended a demonstration lesson given by her old Professor to a prospective new student she had coached. At the end of it, the Professor asked the boy what he would do if he turned him down. The boy said 'I'll become a physicist' The Professor said 'Then that's what you should do right now. See that teacher of yours (indicating my daughter) I asked her the same question when she came to me. She was ten years old. Her answer? 'I don't know, because there IS nothing else for me' Unless that is how you feel, you will be wasting my time: So go and study physics'.

    I suspect Boudinot's diatribe emerged from similar clarity.

  4. "If you can do something else, then do something else" is something I heard repeatedly as a musician. I also heard it as a linguist. I consider that attitude to be a form of power play on the part of the teacher. There is nothing in my experience to suggest that a person should only focus on one discipline. Some individuals are multi-talented and each sphere of expertise contributes to the others. So, to those professors and teachers who demand total control over their students, I say, "If you can do something else, do something else."


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