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The Snotty Sayings of an MFA Creative Writing Prof


Podcast Audio Link: Click here.

Podcast Transcript: Hi, genuine writers! This is Innovative Editing’s Jeannette DiLouie officially welcoming you to episode #14 of The Genuine Writer Podcast. We keep things short, sweet and to the point here so that you can learn what you need to learn and get back to writing already.

Today’s episode is sponsored once again by Writing Your Novel, Book 2: Create Compelling Novel Characters: How to Make Your Heroes, Villains (and All the Rest) Stand Out. This e-booklet – which I’ll of course include the link for in the episode description section – delves further into the main topic we’re focusing on in The Genuine Writer blog for the next few weeks.

You can get the e-booklet for just $2.99 on Amazon today. Or, if you want to get the same information for free, just at a bit of a slower pace, go ahead and sign up for Innovative Editing’s free e-letter by going to www.InnovativeEditing.com and scroll down to The Genuine Writer sign-up box toward the bottom of the page.

With that bit of self-promotion out of the way, let’s talk about a creative writing article I found for the first time the other day, even though it was written a whopping four years ago. Hey, nobody said I was the fastest bunny in the bunch.

I could excuse myself in this case by saying that I normally don’t go looking up creative writing news on my own. Why bother when I can, instead, be creative writing myself? Who knows though. I might be in the major minority here, since this particular article apparently made quite the splash, enraging readers everywhere with its – let’s call it honest opinions. Brutally honest, in fact.

Written by a Ryan Boudinot, who I’d never heard of, for an online publication, the Stranger, which I’d also never heard of, the decently sized piece is titled “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One.” He starts it out with this paragraph:

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.

So, we’ll stop right there and say that, for starters, the fact that he’s writing this out does seem a little on the pretentious side. I mean, I’ve personally always seen MFAs in creative writing as rather pointless myself – all that extra time and money spent on learning a craft that 1) is best learned by simply writing, editing, editing and more editing, followed by more of that same cycle. And 2) will lead to what? What can you do with such an “advanced degree”? Seriously?

But that aside, Mr. Ryan Boudinot does seem on the jaded side. Or, at the very least, unnecessarily honest. If he wanted to actually be helpful to students and potential students instead of just vent, then there’s a different way he could have worded what he wrote, as he no doubt knows being such an expert on the written word.

Here’s some more of what he says:

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.

For those of you reading the transcript, can I just say that there was no point to that last comma of his between “hand” and “with.” It doesn’t belong there. If he wanted to emphasize the fact that so few creative writers have lived up to his idea of excellence, he should have replaced that comma with a period. But whatever. If you’re listening to the podcast, then that’s a moot point.

What isn’t a moot point is how he’s right about the larger paragraph. To some degree, anyway. Some writers are more talented than others. And some writers do show more promise than others. There are some writers out there who are so far above my writing plain that they boggle my mind. And there are other writers out there who aren’t as far down the writing road. And, yes, sure, chances are that they’re never going to become the best of the best. For that matter, neither will I. That’s not me knocking my writing either. I’m a good novelist with engaging stories and phenomenal characters. Moreover, I know it. But I also know that I’m probably not ever going to be as phenomenal as my literary heroes. And that’s okay. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be a successful worthwhile author though. And the same thing applies to any other non-“real deal” writers out there.

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.

Once again, there might be some truth to that. Most things in life are easier to master when you’ve put more time into it. The younger you start, the more time you probably have. But again – and seriously, I’m starting to feel really repetitive here – there’s a nicer way of putting it: a way that’s not quite so harsh. How about, “The more time you have to work on your craft, the better. Which means that if you start late, you’re going to have to work twice or three times as hard. So if you figure out that you want to reach the goal of making it in the creative writing world in your 30s or 40s, you’ve been warned. Now get to work.”

And, for the record, I know plenty of people who started out as writers when they were young – even going so far as to win state-wide competitions – who are now doing nothing with those talents. I also know someone who started writing in her 30s thanks to a lifelong problem with dyslexia. And she’s now a published author. So how about that.

If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.

I went to a low-residency MFA program and, years later, taught at a low-residency MFA program. “Low-residency” basically means I met with my students two weeks out of the year and spent the rest of the semester critiquing their work by mail. 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. On a related note: Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question prove that they are not.

Oh. My. Word. I’m starting to see why people were so ticked off with this pompous windbag. In his defense, no doubt half the people criticizing him within the creative writing world are pompous windbags themselves. The whole community is filled with them. But that doesn’t change the fact that this guy is, in fact, a pompous windbag.

Yes, if you’re not willing or able to make time for what you love, then no, you’re not going to achieve what you love. And if you’re actually whining about it, that’s rarely attractive. But something tells me he’s using the word very loosely here. As for all those creative writers even the actual whiners are supposedly “insulting,” so many of them were on drugs. The literary greats, not the whiners. Though they might have been on drugs too.

And you know what? Some people need a little reassurance sometimes. So if you need to ask a mentor or other writing expert if you’re a “real writer” every once in a while, then who cares? Seriously. Everyone needs encouragement.

There were five more statements that Boudinot made, but I’m sure you get the point by now. He retired focusing on the frustrations of his job more than the beauty of it. And that’s partially because, as stated before – and here I go being repetitive again – he’s a typical creative writing elitist pompous windbag.

Don’t let that kind of person get under your skin. Though, considering his confessions, I would think twice about going for your MFA. It sounds like it’s not only a waste of your time and money, but also a waste of your creative potential.

Thanks for tuning in to The Genuine Writer Podcast. As always, it was awesome to have you here and I’ll catch you all next week. Until then, very happy writing!

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