Earlier today, my FB friends, most of them writers and teachers, had a lively debate over Ryan Boudinot’s post in the Stranger.com:
Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One
Since I had the privilege of completing two MFA programs, and also teaching creative writing at the undergraduate level since 1999, I found that I had much to respond to, paragraph by paragraph, to what Boudinot claims to have learned in his experience as an MFA teacher.
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.
Response: are you sure it’s them? Maybe it’s you.
If I were to overhear a fellow colleague complain that some of their student’s writing, produced in his/her class was making her fall asleep, I would have to advise him or her to review the assignment more carefully, to design an intervention, to modify the parameters by which the students are asked to challenge themselves through their writing, and to make them care more about their audience.
I can certainly appreciate the frustration that goes along teaching a topic that is of life-death importance to an instructor, since students seldom have the maturity of appreciating that subject at the same level, but the true challenge of teaching is that we want to reach every student, not just students who already have success spelled on their foreheads and were already self-motivated to start early.
I could never be satisfied taking a salary paid in large part from student tuitions and resign myself to “making them better readers.” This has been the standard, pass-the-buck response of too many privileged writers who were assigned their teaching positions based on the record of their publications with little to no scrutiny given to their teaching philosophy and approach to the classroom. I’m afraid that for those who spent 3 years and mortgage-sized loans wanting to learn the art of writing, becoming better readers just doesn’t cut the mustard.
As a teacher, I am more ambitious than that. I’d be embarrassed to admit, openly that making them better readers is all I could do.
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.
Response: are you the best judge of students’ talent?
I may or may not agree with the absolute statement that writers are born and not made, but I cannot agree, in any way, that you or any other instructor are the sole judge of that. I have seen too many students I considered only “average” blossom into startlingly talented writers when they turned to a subject that truly inspired them, or when they were finally freed from the constrictions of grades. Sometimes, it took my class, and all the failures that they had to face, to turn them into great writers, or to lead them away from bad habits. Other times, they had it in them all along, and for some reason, I was unable to see that while they were my student, and while I always openly encourage everyone, I am glad I have never openly discouraged anyone because I know I would have lost a few really good ones. In fact, having faith in students that seemed to be mediocre, encouraging them, insisting they try, was rewarded with that student’s success in at least two occasions — and by success, I mean books published by reputable legacy publishers or prestigious MFA program acceptances replete with scholarships and stipends.
Before you wholesale dismiss thousands of potential students based on the assumptions that because you have failed to bring out the writer in some of your students, those writers cannot be helped by anyone else, consider how your career would have turned out if someone had told you right from the start, “I can’t help you, kid. You’re either born a writer, or you’re not.” Even if you don’t say it out loud, students can sense your disinterest in their work. Maybe you just don’t have the eyes to see who is born with it and who isn’t: I operate by the assumption that I don’t, and it has worked out well fro my students.
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.
Response: we teach our students not to make sweeping statements that are unsupported by serious data. Where is yours?
This one, for me was the most startling of your absolutes. I came to this country when I was 12, impaired by language. I’ve managed to publish plenty of stories, and two award-winning books. You call Murakami a “notable” exception as if you had data to confirm your absolutist statement. My suspicions are that you have made up your mind on this based on your ability to get along well with students who came to your class already prepared for success. Sure, reading at an early age and loving writing from early on is a sure advantage for anyone wanting to become a writer, but there are more exceptions than you think — I’ve seen many, many of them during the two MFA’s that I attended to get my preparation.
And what does it mean to you to “make it” as a writer? I am in the habit of polling my students at the start of a course regarding their intentions, both long term and short term. Before I do that, I give them an overview of the field, appraising them thoroughly on the competitiveness of the commercial market and the literary market. I was for years surprised to discover that a significant percentage of students had no real desire to become commercially successful through writing, or even to publish a book. They were sincere lovers of the craft and simply wanted to experience it with a mentor, get better at it, and write more. Why are these not writers in your eyes? Why do you consider them failures? Is money and official publication what proves a writer? It has been my experience that frequent publication comes to some great writers, but also to many mediocre ones who are well connected or who understand the market trends well. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands of talented writers out there who are pursuing careers as computer programmers, bankers, and other professions, who write better than those of us who are publishing books.
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.
Response: is teaching self-reflection and time-management skills not in an instructor’s job description?
Do you mean to say you never asked for confirmation? Never in your life? Do you mean to say you couldn’t find the time to sit with a student and ask her to consider why she wants to write? What matters to her? Have you never told her how many of us can never find satisfaction in external confirmation? That we can win awards, be published in the best of journals, and, like Salinger, like Capote, never really feel like we’ve accomplished anything? Why do students have to know this inherently when they come to you? Can you not explain that the challenge is within oneself? Isn’t it that for you?
If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
Without exception, my best students were the ones who read the hardest books I could assign and asked for more. One student, having finished his assigned books early, asked me to assign him three big novels for the period between semesters.Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity’s Rainbow, I told him, almost as a joke. He read all three and submitted an extra-credit essay, too. That guy was the Real Deal.
Conversely, I’ve had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or—without a trace of embarrassment—say they weren’t into “the classics” as if “the classics” was some single, aesthetically consistent genre. Students who claimed to enjoy “all sorts” of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduatestudent!), told me she preferred to read books “that don’t make me work so hard to understand the words.” I almost quit my job on the spot.
Response: it’s an instructor’s job to develop student’s enthusiasm for reading; it’s no one else’s job, and no one else’s fault if that doesn’t happen.
I agree that students don’t read enough, that they have preconceived assumptions about reading, and that these assumptions are standing in the way of their growth, but, once again, it is our job to gently help them see how those assumptions are hurting them. Students will always try to find shortcuts. We’ve taught them to do that throughout our educational system. I would love it if every student who came to my class had read all the classics already, and loved reading. Most of them don’t, and though I can blame it on previous teachers, it’s also my fault if they leave my class and still don’t have a love of books. As a teacher, it’s my job to change their minds, no one else’s. If these students have made it all the way to graduate school without having read great books like The Great Gatsby, it’s because of teachers who, like you, threw up their hands when they couldn’t force a student into submission. Reading tastes are developed over time; they require maturity on behalf of the reader, and they require personal connection.
You cannot simply throw a book like Infinite Jest to someone who has only read fantasy novels and expect them to like it or understand it, just like you can’t throw calculus at a kid who barely learned arithmetic. I know you think that they should have all gone through this process in their undergraduate years or their high school years, but they haven’t. What will you do? If you don’t care, who will?
I struggle with this reading problem every course I teach, but I meet my students where they are, then stir them, according to their tastes and preferences, towards works that are related but literary in nature, works that challenge them subtly. Many of my fiction students who came in loving zombies end up being fans of absurdist writers. A taste for books can be developed and should be respected. I have never liked Moby Dick, hated Infinite Jest, and could never get through Catcher in the Rye for the five times I read that book and hated it each time. You cannot impose your own idea of great literature on the rest of the world. I love plenty of books that are literary, complex, layered, and difficult to read (I pride myself in having read every last sentenced of the unabridged 900 page Yoga Vashista and the Tibetan Book of The Dead in every last annotation and footnote), but I will never read Infinite Jest ever again, nor ever assign it on any poor soul. Some other instructor will, someone who can actually appreciate that type of literature and grow enthusiasm for it in his students’ hearts. Learning starts from enthusiasm, and if a student has no enthusiasm, you cannot just give up on him. It’s your job to find what lights them up from within and stir them towards their growth.
If you fail, it’s on you. Don’t blame the students. They showed up. Did you?
No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.
I worked with a number of students writing memoirs. One of my Real Deal students wrote a memoir that actually made me cry. He was a rare exception. For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. 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.
Response: being cruel to students doesn’t make them better writers
Again, if the educational system prior to students taking your class failed these students by failing to impart on them basic grammar skills, why are you angry at the student? It’s your job to make it clear to the student just how important and basic grammar is to a writer, to ignite a sense of urgency in them, and to help them find the appropriate resources to deal with this problem. I’m sure that those of your former students who wrote memoirs in your class who are reading this post will probably stop writing, at least for a month or two, and hate their memoirs hereon. Good job, teacher.
You don’t need my help to get published.
When I was working on my MFA between 1997 and 1999, I understood that if I wanted any of the work I was doing to ever be published, I’d better listen to my faculty advisers. MFA programs of that era were useful from a professional development standpoint—I still think about a lecture the poet Jason Shinder gave at Bennington College that was full of tremendously helpful career advice I use to this day. But in today’s Kindle/e-book/self-publishing environment, with New York publishing sliding into cultural irrelevance, I find questions about working with agents and editors increasingly old-fashioned. Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening. My advice is for writers to reject the old models and take over the production of their own and each other’s work as much as possible.
Response: for once, we agree.
But letting a student wade alone through the infinite sea of self-publishing without presenting them with a realistic picture of all the work and investment of time and money one must be willing to make is like throwing them to the sharks. It is your job, as a teacher, to know enough about the industry to steer them right, and, in the least, to refer them to those who know more, if you can’t help them yourself.
Overall Response: teaching is hard work – we’re not here just for the good ones; we are here especially for the ones who need help.
Too many people assume that teaching is just strolling into a classroom and helping fire up the imagination of already talented students. It’s a lot more difficult than that. My job exists because of students who don’t read much, students who love to write but have difficulties expressing themselves, students who really want to excel and be great but are misinformed about the discipline and skills it takes to get there. We as teachers simply cannot dismiss students as “not having it” and “not being born with it” or “too late to get to it.” It’s unacceptable. If we accept them into MFA programs, take their money, and time, and hopes and dreams, then we have to make it work. However difficult it may be. I’m sorry to say this, but I’m glad you quit. It takes stomach to be a teacher.
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