"No one cares about your problems if you're a shitty writer"
March 12, 2015 7:55 PM   Subscribe

 
This was soundly smacked down by Chuck Wendig.
posted by Andrhia at 8:05 PM on March 12, 2015 [27 favorites]


RyanBoudinot.com (not owned by Ryan Boudinot) is being used for the critiques of his article.

I did take a writing workshop with him two years ago in Seattle (not part of the MFA program). He was an okay teacher who gave decent critiques of the students' work.
posted by ShooBoo at 8:10 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Whenever I hear about how in the arts you've got to be born with the talent or else you won't make it – or, as he wrote: "Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don't. Some people have more talent than others. " – my brain automatically translates it into "Stay out, poor people!" Maybe that's not a charitable reading, but fuck 'em.
posted by barnacles at 8:13 PM on March 12, 2015 [41 favorites]


It's not important that people think you're smart.

Heavens to Betsy!
posted by clavdivs at 8:17 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


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. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.

Jesus christ. I'm glad he's not teaching anymore, if that's his attitude.
posted by CautiousClam at 8:18 PM on March 12, 2015 [24 favorites]


Nope, it's a perfectly accurate reading. And it makes me glad to see that the colletive response to his poisonous tripe from the writing community has been a collective middle finger.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:19 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


That's why I advise anyone serious about writing books to spend at least a few years keeping it secret.

That little bit reminds me of Donald Hall's excellent (if somewhat crotchety) "Poetry and Ambition" -
True ambition in a poet seeks fame in the old sense, to make words that live forever. . . . Only when the poem turns wholly away from the petty ego, only when its internal structure fully serves art’s delicious purposes, may it serve to reveal and envision. . . . Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years; don’t let them go, don’t publish them until you have kept them around for ten years: by that time, they ought to stop moving on you; by that time, you ought to have them right. Sensible advice, I think— but difficult to follow. When Pope wrote “An Essay on Criticism” seventeen hundred years after Horace, he cut the waiting time in half, suggesting that poets keep their poems for five years before publication. Henry Adams said something about acceleration, mounting his complaint in 1912; some would say that acceleration has accelerated in the seventy years since. By this time, I would be grateful—and published poetry would be better—if people kept their poems home for eighteen months.

Poems have become as instant as coffee or onion soup mix. One of our eminent critics compared Lowell’s last book to the work of Horace, although some of its poems were dated the year of publication. Anyone editing a magazine receives poems dated the day of the postmark. When a poet types and submits a poem just composed (or even shows it to spouse or friend) the poet cuts off from the poem the possibility of growth and change; I suspect that the poet wishes to forestall the possibilities of growth and change, though of course without acknowledging the wish.
posted by sallybrown at 8:19 PM on March 12, 2015 [8 favorites]


I read this from a link on Facebook a while ago, and my thought having read it was that he was an astoundingly bad teacher. Regardless of whatever advice he could give on the craft of writing, he shouldn't be teaching anything to anyone.
posted by codacorolla at 8:31 PM on March 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


It's funny, the more I practice, the more talented I am.
posted by borges at 8:33 PM on March 12, 2015 [12 favorites]


I haven't read the article yet, but MFA programs are scams at this point. They exist to provide jobs for MFA graduates. Their proliferation is kind of like the law school bubble from 2008. They're profitable and easy to set up and there is demand but no after market.

But I went to Iowa so bang bang finger guns.

Whenever I hear about how in the arts you've got to be born with the talent or else you won't make it – or, as he wrote: "Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don't. Some people have more talent than others. " – my brain automatically translates it into "Stay out, poor people!" Maybe that's not a charitable reading, but fuck 'em.

People have variable talents. Hard work can be 90%, that's a made up number so we can even say, 99.9% of it, but there is genius in all physical and mental endeavors. It would be pretty sad to me if the best art our species has produced can just be brute forced by anyone. It is a culmination of talent, work, more work, luck, the right moment, luck, work and talent.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:40 PM on March 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


barnacles: "Whenever I hear about how in the arts you've got to be born with the talent or else you won't make it – or, as he wrote: "Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don't. Some people have more talent than others. " – my brain automatically translates it into "Stay out, poor people!" Maybe that's not a charitable reading, but fuck 'em."

It's not just "uncharitable", it's...the exact polar opposite. Saying "you have talent or you don't" is saying "Money can't buy talent. Connections can't buy talent. You either have it, or you don't."

If you want to find a part which could be interpreted as "Stay out, poor people!", then maybe go with "If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out." That lends itself far more to your interpretation.
posted by Bugbread at 8:41 PM on March 12, 2015 [19 favorites]


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.

This right off the bat tells me that he was a shitty fucking teacher. The best teachers I know all are willing to work with students of all starting levels and talents and help them improve what they have, not just immediately write them off as hopeless. If I could learn just as well from an inanimate textbook as I could from you, the human standing in front of me, you are a godawful miserable teacher. Full stop.
posted by sciatrix at 8:41 PM on March 12, 2015 [12 favorites]


One of my favorite poets, George Szirtes, wrote a pretty great response to this article. This point says it all for me:

People who complain that creative writing courses produce relatively few writers don't complain that history degrees produce few historians, that music schools produce relatively few world renowned soloists, that art departments don't necessarily produce a lot of major artists. I spent 16 years in schools teaching art. Are people asking how many of those are 'great' artists now? I sincerely can't see why writing is different from any other art.

Also, I don't see how you can trust the opinion of a teacher who pushes huge amounts of reading on his students who then turns and says that he'd rather have an abuse victim further victimized than have to read 500 pages of their manuscripts. The stench of hypocrisy is strong with this one.
posted by Perko at 8:43 PM on March 12, 2015 [16 favorites]


Writers are born with talent.

I'm making a living as a writer. It feels like a good living, though I'm childless, healthy and I've worked as a substitute teacher for 8 years before doing anything to earn money as a writer, so my bar is pretty low, but...but I'm a writer and a certificated social studies & language arts teacher.

And this article just makes me think that this person really, really shouldn't have gone into teaching.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:45 PM on March 12, 2015 [12 favorites]


The best teachers I know all are willing to work with students of all starting levels and talents and help them improve what they have, not just immediately write them off as hopeless. If I could learn just as well from an inanimate textbook as I could from you, the human standing in front of me, you are a godawful miserable teacher. Full stop.

I think what we have here is a fundamental disconnect. Is an MFA program, a MASTERS in Fine Arts, designed for anyone or only the most talented (edit: also more than that hard working, that is insanely important) in the field?

I do not believe you have been in an undergraduate workshop. It is not uncharitable to say a lot of people should never put pen to paper. I should never be an actor. I could practice and be instructed for years probably and still be miserable. This applies to literally any creative endeavor.

People. Are. Different. Again, current MFA programs are popping up everywhere with abysmally low admittance standards and exist only to siphon hopeful students money into the pockets of the universities.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:50 PM on March 12, 2015 [21 favorites]


This was soundly smacked down by Chuck Wendig.

He had me at "So Angry It’s Like My Urethra Is Filled With Bees." Like, had me posting this to Facebook in all caps.

Thank you.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:52 PM on March 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


Whenever I hear about how in the arts you've got to be born with the talent or else you won't make it – or, as he wrote: "Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don't. Some people have more talent than others." – my brain automatically translates it into "Stay out, poor people!" Maybe that's not a charitable reading, but fuck 'em.

Your uncharitable reading would have a grain of truth to it if the subject were, say, music – where practicing from a young age means investing in an expensive instrument and lessons and performances. Writing, on the other hand, requires only paper, pen, and a public library.

And talent does exist. Some people are naturally drawn to writing, or math, or painting, or computer science, and others struggle to merely pass those classes. It's true that someone untalented but hard-working can surpass someone talented who hasn't put in the required effort and training, but those with talent and training will still do better. If someone just isn't passionate about writing, they're better off finding something that they are talented at.

(There's a series of blog posts about this, trying to strike a balance between explaining where talent applies and where hard work does. Excerpt: "Last week I challenged a bad study about innate ability, and in the process I accidentally made a few people feel depressed and worthless. Yesterday I tried to resolve that issue, and in the process I accidentally made a few people feel like effort doesn’t matter and there’s no point in trying hard at things. So I guess we have to continue our game of Crippling Self-Doubt Whack-A-Mole. Goodness only knows what horrible lesson people will draw from this post.")
posted by Rangi at 8:53 PM on March 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


If I could learn just as well from an inanimate textbook as I could from you, the human standing in front of me, you are a godawful miserable teacher.

Holy freakin' shit, this right here speaks to what a shitty teacher this person is/was.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:54 PM on March 12, 2015


I'm somewhat surprised by the vitriolic reaction here. As someone who's spent a decent whack of time around young people interested in writing, the brutal application of Sturgeon's Law is undeniable, and tiring.

Finding a young person that is interested in writing (not being a Writer), has the interest to read widely and absorb what they read, approaches writing as a craft and a skill that can be cultivated, is prepared to rework and do over as much as necessary, and it's willing and able to keep the reader front of mind - all with minimum guidance - is pretty damned unusual and quite exciting in my experience.

In the context of an mfa, I suspect this is even more true. I don't think it's a dig on people per se, but more about the expectations many people, young or otherwise, have about writing, about mfas etc.

It's certainly not the only way to be a writer, but in terms of being a successful writer in the mfa cultural context, I think it's probably accurate, and I do think a lot of it applies to how people think about writing outside mfas, too.

I dunno, I bridle against the pretentiousness and selectivity of mfa programs, but I also weary of people who fancy themselves as writers when their reading is about as deep as a bed pan, they can't assess thier own work critically, and lack the context in which to place other work, they are writing first and foremost for themselves, and have a romantic, frankly silly idea of what writing is and how it forms part of their identity, and they have this Cinderella fantasy of what succeeding as a writer looks like, instead of the quite mercantile reality.
posted by smoke at 8:55 PM on March 12, 2015 [35 favorites]



Finding a young person that is interested in writing (not being a Writer), has the interest to read widely and absorb what they read, approaches writing as a craft and a skill that can be cultivated, is prepared to rework and do over as much as necessary, and it's willing and able to keep the reader front of mind - all with minimum guidance - is pretty damned unusual and quite exciting in my experience.


I think most people commenting in here are thinking of this like a high school class. Encourage and nurture your students. They have no idea the level of ego, laziness and smoke & mirrors that goes with being a Writer at a Masters of Fine Arts Program. That should be said with a haughty air by someone who thinks they're way cooler than you.

I dunno, I bridle against the pretentiousness and selectivity of mfa programs, but I also weary of people who fancy themselves as writers when their reading is about as deep as a bed pan, they can't assess thier own work critically, and lack the context in which to place other work, they are writing first and foremost for themselves, and have a romantic, frankly silly idea of what writing is and how it forms part of their identity, and they have this Cinderella fantasy of what succeeding as a writer looks like, instead of the quite mercantile reality.

While I don't like the show, this is what the first part of season 4 of Girls is about. I had to watch it because it was set in my alma-mater. It's incredibly common.

This guy clearly does not hate actual hard working people. Read this again, I will highlight the important part:

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.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:00 PM on March 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


I think what we have here is a fundamental disconnect. Is an MFA program, a MASTERS in Fine Arts, designed for anyone or only the most talented (edit: also more than that hard working, that is insanely important) in the field?

Look, I'm a PhD student. I hang out with lots of people who are very motivated and very hard working and who are varying levels of talented. The course I'm currently attached to, where I get a lot of my teaching philosophy from, is also an entry-level biology course that is deliberately taught to be as comprehensive as possible, and it has very high expectations of its students. Trust me, I get it. I'm not saying that everyone should be able to walk into a class and monopolize the teacher's time, particularly if they're not prepared for the material.

However. The class I work with? We try just as hard for the students who aren't naturals at the material, or who maybe have a rough time figuring out how to manage life and study skills. We--and I include both myself and the instructor who heads the course here--we set the course up such that students have lots of abilities to improve their grasp of the material, regardless of whether they come in already amped to learn it and excited and picking up papers on their own or whether they come in kind of terrified at this course or whether they come in feeling indifferent and just wanting to pass so they can finish their pre-med degree.

This doesn't mean I spend hours and hours tutoring individual students. After all, one of the skills I expect them to either already have or develop is the ability to manage their own and my time, and the ability to behave like a professional. But it does mean that I never, ever ridicule my students to their faces. I certainly never tell them they should drop unless I sincerely believe that's the best choice for their academic grading scale (i.e., if a student is failing and unlikely to recover). I tell students honestly when they succeed, and I think of new ways to present material so that it sinks in more effectively. (So does my instructor.) I cheer them on when they do well, and when they fail and come to me for advice I tell them "Okay, next time study this way/practice more/don't second guess yourself so much." I have told every student that I teach that I believe that they are capable of handling this difficult, demanding material, and by and large they succeed.

That is what I mean by teaching to all the students in the class. It means building on the skills that everyone in your class comes in with, no matter whether they're the best student or the worst. It means teaching for the whole class, not just the golden favorites. And it means treating your students with a fundamental assumption of respect and trust in their motivation to learn and improve.
posted by sciatrix at 9:01 PM on March 12, 2015 [15 favorites]


It is not uncharitable to say a lot of people should never put pen to paper. I should never be an actor. I could practice and be instructed for years probably and still be miserable. This applies to literally any creative endeavor.

I think there's some real confusion about what purpose MFA programs serve -- and are supposed to serve. Lots of people want to write for the personal benefits of self-expression. At whatever level they are at, they want feedback and improvement. If that's what MFA programs are supposed to do, great. Talent should be no bar.

But I think Boudinot comes from the idea that MFA programs are about churning out top quality craft. For this, talent among other things is a sine qua non. Going by way of the conservatory as analogy, you already be demonstrably high-caliber even to gain admission.

The problem is that MFA programs represent themselves to be the second model when they really are the first, if they are in fact even that.

Incidentally, I don't like MFA program style and I don't think Boudinot's choices for "difficult" writing are all that great, which makes me think his idea of good is questionable, but that's a separate issue.
posted by shivohum at 9:01 PM on March 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


There's a big difference between a teacher venting about the crap that continually comes across their desk, and a teacher griping at students that their writing is crap.
posted by verb at 9:05 PM on March 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yeah, MFA programs now represent themselves as the second to MAKE MONEY. Can't emphasize this enough. All those articles you read about law schools popping up everywhere and that being unsustainable? Well, apply it here.

MFA programs should be about turning out high quality craft. What other masters or doctoral program is just designed for y'know because I like the subject matter? Join a local writing group. Read a shit ton of stuff.

That is the difference between training a concert level pianist and someone who plays sometimes at weddings.

Writing seems subjective, anyone can physically write words. You can't tell me that everyone is as musically gifted as anyone else. It takes hard work AND talent to reach the upper echelons of anything and selling the false hope to people is what this whole fucking scam is based on.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:06 PM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Don't mean to sidetrack, but doesn't the registering of a website with his name seem a bit extreme if it's primarily in response to a comment that he probably meant as an attention-grabber? (I of course think that the comment about abuse was entirely inappropriate.)
posted by auggy at 9:16 PM on March 12, 2015


Also a relevant, "I was the MFA Student Who Made Ryan Boudinot Cry."
posted by auggy at 9:19 PM on March 12, 2015 [8 favorites]


Workshop writers wrestle with pontificating pedagogue, "proper writers won't prosper without wit." Please pause.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:25 PM on March 12, 2015


Don't mean to sidetrack, but doesn't the registering of a website with his name seem a bit extreme if it's primarily in response to a comment that he probably meant as an attention-grabber?

I thought of that. Captatio Benevolentiae is not a crowd pleaser.
posted by clavdivs at 9:27 PM on March 12, 2015


I think the entire section on time is hilariously tone-deaf, coming on the heels of the January 2015 dialogue over the link between having the time to write and having the financial means to do so. (Flavorwire has an excellent essay on it here, "Writers, Money, and the Economy: Why Time Is the 21st Century’s 'Room of One’s Own.'"

Today's MFA student is tomorrow's penniless graduate: teaching students how to answer the question "How do I cultivate the work habits I need for the life I'm going to have after graduate?" is just as useful in any writing course as critique of the work.
posted by sobell at 9:30 PM on March 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


I thought of that. Captatio Benevolentiae is not a crowd pleaser.

I suppose the best way to avoid sidetracking would have been not to bring it up! Sorry.
posted by auggy at 9:35 PM on March 12, 2015


On the contrary, you were right on.
posted by clavdivs at 9:37 PM on March 12, 2015


Poor guy.
posted by gt2 at 9:38 PM on March 12, 2015


All guys are poor hence the name guy.
posted by clavdivs at 9:46 PM on March 12, 2015


More Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Students Now That I'm Not Taking Their Money.

If you’re able to continue writing while embracing the assumption that no one will ever read your work, it will reward you in ways you never imagined. If you’re lucky, you may even end up writing clickbait for an alternative weekly.

Not surprisingly, Boudinot's piece garnered a lot of feedback from writers here in the PNW. It's a shame, too; I actually read his new book (from Fantagraphics, no less!) and was looking forward to discussing it with folks, but this whole thing totally overshadows the book release.
posted by redsparkler at 9:53 PM on March 12, 2015


A mixed bag, from someone who sounds like a bad teacher, honestly.

As to the "talent is not created equal" bit, well of course not. Was anyone, anywhere, laboring under the delusion that it was? Genius is uncommon in all fields. So this sentiment isn't novel. More importantly, it's the opposite of "advice," in that it's not useful in any way. It's also woefully underthought, though.

If an accomplished basketball coach were to say that not everybody can be a pro athlete, some people have the propensity and some don't, and that everybody can improve with coaching, but that hard work and good coaching aren't going to be enough to reach the NBA, it'd be tough to argue with that. But it also ignores the fact that athletic talent comes in a hugely varied amount of forms. Basketball players aren't the same as football players, or golfers, or bowlers, or sprinters, or curlers, and on and on. Even on a basketball team itself, the talents needed to be a great Center are quite different from those that a Point Guard uses. And even then someone without the height, speed and reflexes, but with passion and determination, might not play professionally, but could become a coach, manager, official, scout, etc.

Now, I'm a professional writer, of sorts. People tell me I'm good at it. I know for damn sure, however, that I'm much better at certain things than others. Writing is not a monolithic thing, and it's just as ludicrous to assume that talent in writing covers all aspects of it as to assume that talent is "equal."

A good professor thus knows this, pushes students towards polishing their strengths while exploring things they haven't tried, and understands that a career in writing can mean a million different things.

Basically, a Professor saying that talent is innate, that there's only so much he can do, is a Professor making excuses for his own failures.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:54 PM on March 12, 2015 [8 favorites]


Auggy, you are correct in as "he probably meant as an attention-grabber?" Hence Benevolentiae rather then captatio malevolentiae as his rhetorical entrée.
posted by clavdivs at 9:57 PM on March 12, 2015


I should also mention one of my favorite books on writing, Betsy Lerner's Forest for the Trees. About half of it is spent on the practicalities of getting a book bought, edited, and published, which is useful on its own, but the first half is spent exploring the common psychological shit that writers go through and, more commonly, put themselves through. There's the chapter on substance abuse and the harmful romanticization of it in the field, and the chapter on pissing off friends and family by revealing more than they'd like you to, but the first two chapters are particularly relevant.

The first, "The Ambivalent Writer," covers the "I am great, I am shit" internal mantra that all writers deal with, the inherent shortcomings of self-critique and the pitfalls of believing too much in external criticism.

The second, "The Natural," talks about what Boudinot keeps calling "The Real Deal" here, and what an absolute myth that is. Nobody is spending their nights at the typewriter furiously pounding out another felicitous chapter, ripping the page out of the machine, wiping their brow, and smiling. Sure, that happens occasionally, but those nights are rare, and don't come to everybody. We're just made to think that everybody else works that way.

Anyway, it's more worthwhile to read tips from an editor than a burnt out Prof justifying why he was only able to help the students who didn't really need it anyway.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:07 PM on March 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


I Was the MFA Student Who Made Ryan Boudinot Cry. (on review...missed that above.)
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:15 PM on March 12, 2015


Ah, gotcha Claudius. I misunderstood. Looks like Boudinot misjudged his audience a bit, then . . .
posted by auggy at 10:19 PM on March 12, 2015


It's not important that people think you're smart.

Another big tax-bill problem I don't have.
posted by bz at 10:43 PM on March 12, 2015


It takes hard work AND talent to reach the upper echelons of anything and selling the false hope to people is what this whole fucking scam is based on.

Also, bear in mind that every single one of those students is competition. Every one that gets published is a little less money available for the TRUE geniuses.

Conversely, every one that is convinced to delete their work and give up writing increases the chance that deserving MFAs get published, right? Oh, if only someone had convinced Rowling to take up another hobby, how many happy MFAs there would be now!
posted by happyroach at 10:54 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Teachers are supposed to disappear, dude.

So are editors.

Internet blowhards, however, are encouraged to bray.
posted by notyou at 11:13 PM on March 12, 2015


Wow. I read this thread and a couple of the linked articles then finally got around to clicking on the Boudinot article in the expectation that it would be some kind of deranged outpouring of hatred and contempt, and... it was pretty mild. If MFA students/graduates are really such delicate petals that they can't cope with this kind of soft, generalised admonishment, I'd hate to see what actual criticism does to them. Meanwhile, the main thing the responses to Boudinot have in common is how poorly written they are. I hope he is happier in his new career.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 11:31 PM on March 12, 2015 [11 favorites]


Boudinot's 'new career' is, if I have understood it correctly, one of the spokespeople for Seattle City of Literature, a group that is trying to make Seattle a more attractive location for writers by becoming an official UNESCO City of Literature. I'm not sure this article really set him up well for that position.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:48 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


If MFA students/graduates are really such delicate petals that they can't cope with this kind of soft, generalised admonishment, I'd hate to see what actual criticism does to them.

And you won't, I think is the problem.

I get the "toughen up" instinct, but it's not really helpful here, in a field that more or less demands sensitivity. I don't know if I've met any writers for whom self-doubt isn't a major issue, and that has little if anything to do with their level of talent. To paraphrase Betsy Lerner again, she says something like, "I saw the best minds of my generation, discouraged, applying to law school." God knows I've gone through that, and am still now trying to repair the damage, still laid flat by casual discouragement, but trying to thicken my skin.

But thickening my skin doesn't help my writing. It just helps me shrug off shit like this.

The belief that a writing professor can't really teach anything, or can only teach so much, surely has some truth to it. But it sounds a lot like professors who want to be gate-keepers. And there are certainly gate-keepers on the way to being a successful writer. You need to impress them. But that should not be a Professor's role.

Especially not a professor who is telling you to "woodshed" for seven years in order to get to where you'll show your work to anybody who will publish it, but who wants to determine your worth before that point.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:00 AM on March 13, 2015


This is all "Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One"...which means it's all stuff he did not say when he was teaching one. So all the stuff you may think is shitty in there, is something he didn't tell students when they were in his course.
posted by Bugbread at 1:36 AM on March 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


So all the stuff you may think is shitty in there, is something he didn't tell students when they were in his course.

But he whispered them under his breath. Constantly. Vehemently. Especially when he would lie in bed at night for hours staring at nothing in the dark.
posted by happyroach at 2:36 AM on March 13, 2015


You know, even if he has good points, or the best points, about writing, I just get so tired of reading takedowns and smackdowns and doses of tough love on the internet. It kind of wears on you after a while.
posted by teponaztli at 2:42 AM on March 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


The two-minutes hate routine is also wearing thin, however.
posted by thelonius at 2:58 AM on March 13, 2015 [11 favorites]


Boudinot's 'new career' is, if I have understood it correctly, one of the spokespeople for Seattle City of Literature, a group that is trying to make Seattle a more attractive location for writers by becoming an official UNESCO City of Literature. I'm not sure this article really set him up well for that position.

This intrigued me, since I live in a UNESCO City of Literature. Seattle applied in March 2014 and UNESCO made their announcements in November 2014, awarding the title to Dunedin, Heidelberg, Prague, and Granada.

So I think we can add "spokesman for the Seattle City of Literature campaign" to his list of former careers.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:05 AM on March 13, 2015


It wasn't a very good piece, was it?

A couple of things that stuck out -

Firstly: the number of people who have begun writing in their thirties, forties, fifties and older and become well-known and even well-loved authors is far greater than the equivalent in any other art form that I can think of. There are so many exceptions to that rule that it's not really a rule at all, or even a rough guideline.

Secondly: if you're unironically (or even ironically, come to think of it) going to use the word "shitty", I'm not going to take you seriously as a teacher of writing. It's not offensive (or at least not to me, who took to Derek and Clive very early), but it is puerile, perfunctory, vague, lazy and - worst of all - unmusical. As a criticism it doesn't really mean anything, is a bit childish and doesn't sound good.

Is he the kind of teacher who was shown in Whiplash, torturing young people into playing unadventurous elevator music competently, while swaggering around with the kind of airs and graces that would be undignified on an elder statesman?
posted by Grangousier at 3:36 AM on March 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


they play rock in elevators now
posted by thelonius at 3:43 AM on March 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


As one of those (now literal) voices in the wilderness, I read this arbitrary elitism of Boudinot with some animus. It's voices like that led me to forsake drama class in high school, guitar lessons for SAT prep, a major in English for pre-law. Now I'm just another schmuck with a JD and $150k in student loan debt. Because I listened to the 'rational sensible people, to do the 'rational sensible thing'. I've been listening to advice like Boudinot's my whole life, and I can attest that mediocrity and poverty is the product.
I've self-published two books, and I have a credit on a third book that published today (woo!). But there's so much savoir faire, networking, know how viz marketing and self-promotion that I simply don't know. Composition and craft is merely a component, a paint in the palette; the ability to compose does not a Writer make.
Am I a Real Deal? A discarded pearl gone to silt? Who can say?

But I carry the words of Langston Hughes, "a dream deferred", coiled up like a serpent against my spine. Those words of his, they just bleed into all I perceive.

Back to the work.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 3:43 AM on March 13, 2015 [6 favorites]


I can't help but notice that 1. Both of the "Real Deal" students are male 2. The one female student he explicitly mentions is clearly NOT "Real Deal" and is described with contempt and 3. The books he mentions are ALL written by men.
posted by lunasol at 4:39 AM on March 13, 2015 [15 favorites]


Writers are born with talent.

Meh. I prefer Stephen King's argument about this, which I will paraphrase, no doubt inaccurately:

There are four kinds of writers: bad writers, average writers, good writers, and great writers. If you're a bad writer, then I can't help you - you're bad, stop writing. If you're a great writer, then I can't help you - you're great, go write. Me, I'm an average writer who read and wrote until he became a good writer. All I can do is to help you get from the "average" level to the "good" level.

Talent exists, but skill, practice, dedication, and sheer luck are more important.

No one cares about your problems if you're a shitty writer.

On the other hand, I basically agree with this, especially in the context of students creating projects in order to develop their skills as writers. Relevant article from The Onion: Study: Family History Of Alcoholism Raises Risk Of One-Man Show:
"The study, which asserted that every six seconds an individual from an alcoholic household comes up with the idea to open his one-man show by lighting a cigarette, found that if the urge to incorporate a collage of baby photos into the performance isn't addressed immediately, a young adult may begin experimenting with dangerously melodramatic lines of dialogue, such as, "You don't really know rock bottom until you hit it," or, "People are funny, aren't they?"

Soon, the report said, these performers become addicted to the thought of directly quoting a Shel Silverstein poem at the conclusion of their show, and are heavily predisposed toward wearing a baseball cap for the sequence in which they portray their father showing up drunk to little-league practice."
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:41 AM on March 13, 2015 [7 favorites]


Especially not a professor who is telling you to "woodshed" for seven years in order to get to where you'll show your work to anybody who will publish it, but who wants to determine your worth before that point.

There's no contradiction, though. He taught at an MFA program. He says that Real Deal writers almost certainly have been writing since they were teenagers. Therefore, by the time you get to his program, you should have already been woodshedding for years and years.

I don't agree 100% with his point on a literal level, but it does make perfect sense that, in general, more successful writers will have already been writing and self-editing on their own for a while.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:46 AM on March 13, 2015


People who complain that creative writing courses produce relatively few writers don't complain that history degrees produce few historians, that music schools produce relatively few world renowned soloists, that art departments don't necessarily produce a lot of major artists. I spent 16 years in schools teaching art. Are people asking how many of those are 'great' artists now? I sincerely can't see why writing is different from any other art.

No kidding. My wife has taught Psychology as a university professor for about 14 years now four of those at Ivy League schools and 8 of them at a top 3 psych program in the UK. As far as I know 1 of her former undergraduate students is now a tenure track researcher. I am not sure if there are even any others even on the path.
posted by srboisvert at 5:09 AM on March 13, 2015


So all the stuff you may think is shitty in there, is something he didn't tell students when they were in his course.

I would seriously doubt that his feelings were so very well hidden than no one could tell any of it.
posted by jeather at 5:49 AM on March 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


Good for him to tell the truth that very few people have what it takes to be a professional-caliber writer (native talent, lifelong habit of reading, willingness to make it a real time and effort priority), and many who lack what takes somehow nevethless allow themselves to enroll in an MFA.

And all the people who are whining that this is not how a good teacher would think? Ridiculous. Good teachers of graduate professional programs are supposed to think exactly like that, and not operate some kind of self-esteem factory. What's next? A clinical professor of surgery tolerating a student whose hands tremble uncontrollably?

On the other hand: how long did it take him to realize that he was scamming all those students out of tuition and opportunity cost, and all the taxpayers who guarantee their student loans against the considerable risk of default?
posted by MattD at 6:09 AM on March 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


The comparison of MFA programs to undergraduate or high school programs is entirely inapt. Those are well-understood to have a generalist character; it makes perfect sense for someone who is going to go on to sell software or trade bonds to have done some acting or wrote some poetry while an undergrad.

But MFA programs are much better compared to dental school. A dental school where 75% of the graduates never filled a cavity and 80% of the rest could only see patients nights and weekends while they worked day jobs to pay the rent, would be regarded as a pretty shitting dental school indeed. And if of those 95% of graduates who didn't make a living, the large majority clearly lacked the requisite qualities ever to be in the 5%, it would be a damn unethical dental school, too.
posted by MattD at 6:23 AM on March 13, 2015


Lynda Barry's What It Is is one of the best and most helpful books about writing (how to write, why to write) I've ever read (along, probably, with this as well, but i can't ever find a copy in stock anywhere).

Actually, it's not just one of the best books about writing, it's one of the best books entirely. It's utterly wonderful.
posted by dng at 7:26 AM on March 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


Dude, I tried reading Finnegans Wake and it didn’t give me a writing career. It just gave me a stroke. I have a copy of Infinite Jest around here somewhere — oh, ha ha, not to read, but rather, to bludgeon interlopers when they try to steal my sex furniture.

Sorry, I just needed to see that again. Carry on.
posted by holborne at 7:32 AM on March 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


jeather: "I would seriously doubt that his feelings were so very well hidden than no one could tell any of it."

No, and because of that he probably wasn't a great teacher. But there's a big difference between "probably couldn't hide all of it" and "probably couldn't hide any of it". That's the difference between "okay teacher" (the impression from the only person in this thread who has actually taken a course from him) and "astoundingly bad", "shitty", "shitty" (again), and "bad".

Does the article make him sound like a great teacher? Not really. Does the article make him sound like a horrible teacher? Not really. So he sounds...I dunno, ok? And the one person in the thread with first hand experience also says: "He was an okay teacher who gave decent critiques of the students' work." So I'm willing to believe ShooBoo on this.
posted by Bugbread at 7:38 AM on March 13, 2015


The problem with stuff like "If you didn't decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you're probably not going to make it" is, there are thousands of reasons a talented person might not have decided to take writing seriously as a child.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:01 AM on March 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


This guy is kind of an asshole, but it bears repeating that he's talking about writers in MFA programs. Those writers constitute a fraction of the folks that write for a living (or even a fraction of the folks that write fiction for a living). I write for a living (though the stuff I love to write rarely pays). I the only one among my undergraduate writer friends who chose not to go after an MFA. So far none of us have gone on to spectacular literary success. Some publish occasionally. Some are adjuncts. One of us runs a tiny poetry-centric publishing house. One of us runs an acupuncture clinic. One of us--out of seemingly nowhere--found God and went to Divinity School. I'm not the only one who has dabbled in advertising. We all have decent CVs, nice looking portfolios and at least one novel that we're never going to publish. We're all approximately one degree of separation from someone (not necessarily the same person) who actually DID IT and published A BIG DEAL NOVEL. Sometimes we say shitty things about that person, because, hey, I just spent the morning writing a tourism advertorial for a magazine that referred to so-and-so from junior year (and her upper six figure advance) as the voice of her generation and I'm not a saint, for Christ sake

Writing, as art form, has a fairly low bar to entry. If you're nominally literate, have a pen and paper and something to tell, there's basically nothing stopping you from writing your heart out. Now, whether or not your words find an audience or acclaim (or both) is a whole other story and one that no MFA program-- no matter how good--can predict. I don't care if your're the "real deal" or not. And I don't even know what the "real deal" is. Is it the kid from one of my workshops who wrote brutal, hilarious and beautiful stories? He'd been a high school drop-out, occasional drug dealer and dishwasher before resuming his education at our state university. I think that workshop was the first he ever took (and it was also the last he ever took. Last time I checked in on him, he was finishing a PhD in some totally unrelated field. He's successful, but not a writer, and not a bit regretful that he didn't stay on course and matriculate at UVA or Iowa or Columbia with the rest of them). Or is "the real deal" EL James or Stephanie Meyer or really anyone who is able to beat impossible odds and achieve considerable material success writing exactly whatever flavor of crap they want? When I was twenty-two and still blathered on endlessly about experimental prose and capital-A Art , I had a hard answer to that question. At almost forty ? I'm not so sure.

I'm rambling. I know this. Success in the arts, any of the arts, is kind of hard to quantify, because the odds of you being "successful" by any conventional measure of success is vanishingly small. Instead, we tend to gauge our achievements on somewhat more specialized metrics. "I won a residency with a small ballet company in Germany." "I published a poem in a literary magazine you can't buy anywhere in my home state." "My play is being produced by an experimental theatre in Oregon." "On this otherwise ordinary Wednesday, I just finished a new novel." "I have a new show going up in this hip new barbecue restaurant." "This twenty-one year old kid asked if I would be interested in scoring his indie film." Anyone entering any MFA with the notion that fame and fortune awaits at the other end might be interested in this bridge I'm selling cheap in Brooklyn. You go to an MFA because you'd like to improve, because you're willing to go into (often significant) debt in order to have more time to work on your craft and because you're too obsessive and delusional to stop writing/acting/dancing/composing/painting/whathaveyou. Maybe you do make impressive literary connections. And maybe those impressive literary connections will only take you as far as an underpaid gig reading the slush pile at a publishing house that has only managed to stay viable by publishing evangelical diet books for teenage werewolves.

Bottom line: You can call yourself a writer. You can write every day. You can read Ulysses a hundred times. You can earn an MFA. You make guys like Ryan Boudinot cry. You still may not be able to get your best friend, or your mother, or your lover or anyone outside of your workshop to read a chapter of your opus (let alone engage with it). Writing for yourself has to be good enough for you. Whatever provokes you to sit down and put words together-- be it processing the world around you or making art or exorcising demons or putting form to the great adventure story you've been telling yourself since you were nine-that has to be enough, because oftentimes, most of the time, that's all there is.
posted by thivaia at 9:11 AM on March 13, 2015 [12 favorites]


Does the article make him sound like a horrible teacher? Not really.

Yeah, it does, because he publicly shat on his students.

When you do that, you immediately go to being a shitty teacher, do not pass go, do not collect sinecure.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:31 AM on March 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yeah, it does, because he publicly shat on his students.

It's more than that -- and again, I'm saying that as both a teacher and a writer.

Going off about students this way doesn't shock me. Teachers do it all the time. Good teachers will grumble and fume and say incredibly callous things about students...in private. Even in groups. It'll fall out on Facebook or some online comment or whatever sometimes, too. That teacher who dedicates her whole life to her students and who has awards falling off her desk will say some pretty scathing stuff that gets the paint peeling off the walls. You might be shocked. You might be appalled. You might be amused. Whatever.

The loud, hey-look-at-me fashion in which he does this goes well beyond any of that. But more importantly: it shows that he has no patience and no tolerance for the work.

If you hate being around sick people, don't go into medicine. If you can't stand reading and critiquing piles and piles of other peoples' work -- much of which you will reflexively disagree with or find huge problems with -- then for the love of God, don't go into teaching. That part of the job generally isn't the best. God knows it's not the part that I love. But this guy's complaining that he signed up at McDonald's and now he has to smell fast food all day.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:56 AM on March 13, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'm on Boudinot's side on this. Why? Because I have known some nice folks who were just shitty writers and unfortunately fall right into the territory he's talking about. I knew one person who got kicked out of a group because after a year of working with him, literally everyone got fed the hell up of trying to help him because he'd smile and nod and do the exact same things in his next chapter. Nobody wanted to read his story. They hit the Line of Death on the first page. His prose was godawful to try to wade through. We all know people in writing groups like this. Heck, sometimes they're most of the writing group.

I know another person who loves writing but hates reading, and frankly, in her writing you could tell that she didn't know how things should sound. It took her a long time to get into an MFA program, but she eventually got into one. And to her credit, she did actually improve. However, I'm kind of convinced that where that improvement came from was because I told her she needed to read more books.

I don't think writing can be taught, to some degree. I mean, sure, you can nitpick stuff and give tips and hints and go on about grammar, but there is some kind of giant overall understanding of how writing and words sound that some people fundamentally do not comprehend. Maybe some of them will if they read more, but some of them might not. And MFA programs may very well have the financial incentive to take some folks who can't write that well in anyway. You can work with and improve some folks, but some you just flat out can't. I think that's what he means by being born with talent, though I'm guessing the Real Deal is one who he didn't end up having to work with too hard.

Likewise the part about being a teenager and taking writing seriously is once again referring to the same thing: "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." You have to read a lot in order to comprehend how words and writing sound. I wouldn't quite say it's too late if you didn't read as a teenager, but to some degree he has a point about learning from the getgo about how to speak. Just having a fundamental "knowing" of how stuff sounds is the basis of everything. And if you have no idea on it, then writing is probably not for you.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:57 AM on March 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ah, also for the record: I think buying his name as a domain and then just using it to post complainy posts about him over and over again is rather tacky.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:36 AM on March 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think that's what he means by being born with talent,

So maybe Boudinot's real problem in this article is that he's not very good at expressing himself in words...?
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:42 AM on March 13, 2015


Hee! Eh, that's what I interpreted it as. Talent being a natural ability to be good at something, in this case knowing how things sound.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:47 AM on March 13, 2015


If you're able to continue writing while embracing the assumption that no one will ever read your work, it will reward you in ways you never imagined.

I'm down with this. The rest is crap though.
posted by chavenet at 10:57 AM on March 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


NoxAeternum: "Yeah, it does, because he publicly shat on his students. "

Ex-students. So, if he'd gotten hit by a train the day before he wrote this article, then he wouldn't have been a bad teacher? Being a good or bad teacher is some kind of a Schroedinger's Box thing?

I had a great physics teacher in high school. Really amazing. If he retires and publicly shits on his students, then retroactively it means he was actually a horrible teacher all along and the fact that he changed so many people's lives for the better is irrelevant? It would seem far less time-travelly to just say "he was a good teacher, but a horrible retiree".
posted by Bugbread at 3:30 PM on March 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Hey, I heard you took a class from Professor Smith. How was he?"
"I don't know, ask me after his funeral."
posted by Bugbread at 4:14 PM on March 13, 2015


All the Great Writers had Great Problems...
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 5:47 PM on March 13, 2015


More news on this topic: good news and bad news.

Good news: he's in talks with Fantagraphics to do a literary imprint.

Not so good: the board of Seattle City of Literature demanded that Boudinot quit and apologize, and when he didn't, they all resigned. And the UNESCO City of Literature bid is going on hold for awhile.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:37 AM on March 19, 2015


Ugh, I normally love The Stranger, but that piece is such a load of sycophantic crap. And of course he's invoking Charlie Hebdo, because having people disagree with you and politely ask you to quit is exactly the same as having people disagree with you and then kill you because of it:
What weighed most heavily on me were the other writers around the world who are challenged for their expression. I thought about the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the conversations I had in Chengdu with delegates from Kampala and Baghdad, where the cost of expression can be far greater than being hounded by angry bloggers. If Seattle is to stand as a peer among other cities of literature, we cannot set the precedent that a writer's opinions—however unpopular or provocative—can lead to the loss of that writer's livelihood. I want Seattle to stand as a place where expression that provokes—and even offends—is protected.
posted by lunasol at 2:39 PM on March 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


I also can't help but notice that he's framing it as having "sharply critical things to say about MFA programs." Lots of people are sharply critical of MFA programs. That's great! The problem is he was being contemptuously critical of MFA students, which is a very different conversation.
posted by Andrhia at 4:47 PM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


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