An Open Letter To That Ex-MFA Creative Writing Teacher Dude

“It it the — flame! Flames, flames on the side of my face, breathing, breathless–“

(Alternate title: Things I Can Say About That Article Written By That Creative Writing Ex-MFA Teacher Guy Now That I’ve Read It And Gotten So Angry It’s Like My Urethra Is Filled With Bees.)

Okay, fine, go read the article.

I’ll wait here.

*checks watch*

Ah, there you are.

I see you’re trembling with barely-concealed rage. Good on you.

I will now whittle down this very bad, very poisonous article — I say “poisonous” because it does a very good job of spreading a lot of mostly bad and provably false information.

Let us begin.

“Writers are born with talent.”

Yep. There I am. Already angry. I’m so angry, I’m actually just peeing bees. If you’re wondering where all these bees came from? I have peed them into the world.

This is one of the worst, most toxic memes that exists when it comes to writers. That somehow, we slide out of the womb with a fountain pen in our mucus-slick hands, a bestseller gleam in our rheumy eyes. We like to believe in talent, as if it’s a definable thing — as if, like with the retconned Jedi, we can just take a blood test and look for literary Midichlorians to chart your authorial potential. Is talent real? Some genetic quirk that makes us good at one thing, bad at another? Don’t know, don’t care.

What I know is this: your desire matters. If you desire something bad enough, if you really want it, you will be driven to reach for it. No promises you’ll find success, but a persistent, almost psychopathic urge forward will allow you to clamber up over those muddy humps of failure and into the eventual fresh green grass of actual accomplishment.

Writers are not born. They are made. Made through willpower and work. Made by iteration, ideation, reiteration. Made through learning — learning that comes from practicing, reading, and through teachers who help shepherd you through those things in order to give your efforts context.

No, not everyone will become a success because nothing in life is guaranteed.

But a lack of success is not because of how you were born.

Writers are not a caste. They are not the chosen ones.

We work for what we want. We carve our stories out of stone, in ink of our own blood.

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

[becomes Madeline Kahn]

FLAMES. ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE.

This is one of those “provably false” things.

Because lots and lots and lots and lots of writers — successful writers, writers with books, with audiences, with money, with continued publishing contracts — did not start getting serious about writing until their 20s, 30s, 40s, and even beyond that.

Sidenote: teenagers are rarely serious about anything at all ever.

I, admittedly, was serious about writing as a teenager.

I was also serious about sandwiches, Star Wars, Ultima, vampires, masturbation.

I don’t think “what you took seriously as a teenager” is ever going to be a meaningful metric to see how the rest of your life is going to turn out. Your pubescent years are not prophecy.

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

This is one of those points he makes that almost sounds right-on. Because, sure, you shouldn’t complain about not having time to write. Wanna be a writer? Find the time to write.

Except, he’s talking to students. Students, who routinely do not have enough time. Students, who of course are going to complain because complaining is part and parcel of life. So, “just drop out” seems maybe a little presumptuous, don’t you think?

“If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.”

Wait. Yes! I agree with this! If you want to be a writer, you need to be a serious reader, and so — *keeps reading the article* — oh, goddamnit. He doesn’t mean ‘serious’ as in, ‘committed to the act,’ he means ‘serious’ as in, “I read the hoitiest-toitest of books.”

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.

Wanna be a writer? Just read. Read all kinds of stuff. Read broadly. Read from a wide variety of voices. Do not read by some prescription. Do not read because of some false intellectual rigor. Read a biography of Lincoln, then mainline a handful of Dragonlance novels, then read Rainbow Rowell before figuring out why anybody gives a fuck about Tom Clancy. Read a book about space, about slavery, about bugs, about hypnosis. Read anything and everything. Your reading requires a serious commitment, not a commitment to serious books.

“No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.”

Ah, yes, Alex, I’ll take THINGS SHITTY HUMANS SAY for $500.

Author goes onto say:

“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.”

Wh… whuuuuuh… why would… whhh.

That whistling sound is the dramatic whisper of oxygen keening through my open, slack-jawed mouth. Because holy fucking fuck, why would you ever say that and think anybody is ever going to feel good about it? Man, I am a huge fan of the TAKE YOUR MEDICINE LIFE IS HARD school of teaching writing, but never in a zajillion years would I suggest you suffer more child abuse because you’re a bad writer. Thanks, teacher, you’re so helpful.

That’s colder than a snowman’s asshole, dude.

I mean, dang.

“You don’t need my help to get published.”

Once again: skirting truth. It’s true that you do not need an MFA to get published. Actually, you need almost nothing at all in terms of qualifications. You don’t need a BA, either. You don’t need a high school diploma or even a GED. Publishing doesn’t care if you even graduated your preschool. Your audience has no interest in when you learned to walk.

All it cares about is if the book is good.

Now, you of course go through all the schooling not for the pieces of paper it provides but rather for the skills you learn along the way. I don’t have an MFA but I did have writing professors in college and they helped hone who I was as an author. It had real meaning, and I don’t regret it.

Of course, the author of the article goes on to say:

“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.”

Advice that runs considerably counter to the rest of his piece, I think — and again, provably false. You could self-publish and you could do well. You might even want to try that. But to assume that the other ways are so outmoded that they’re equivalent to buggy-whips and phonographs is absurd. Lots of good information out there on both traditional and self-publishing. You already know this, of course, but this article cheeses me off enough that I’m pretty sure my salivary glands are producing actual cobra venom.

“It’s not important that people think you’re smart.”

Finally.

Finally!

Something I agree with. In its entirety.

Writing isn’t set dressing. The words are not themselves the end of their function — they have to dance for their dinner, and so must be enlightning, engaging, entertaining. I take some umbrage with the idea of being only entertaining or pleasurable (seriously, has he actually read Gravity’s Rainbow?), and would instead correct to say:

You write to tell a story.

You don’t tell a story in order to write.

The language is there as a tool. Words are not preening peacocks.

“It’s important to woodshed.”

Once more, a moment of almost truth.

Writing is a solitary act, and a lot of the early writing you will do will be fit only for the manure pile. This is true of most writers, I think, where we iterate early (and ideally, iterate often) in order to figure out what the fidgety fuck we’re doing. We trunk novels not because we strive for perfection but because we have to learn. Of course the first stories we produce aren’t going to be sublime shelf-burners and bestsellers, just as a toddler’s first steps are clumsy drunken ones, not an elegant Olympian sprint.

But I disagree that nobody should see it. That’s ultimately what he’s saying — write in the dark, some fungal producer of literary mushroom caps. Tell no one. Iterate in shadow and shame. Which is not functional — we write to be read, and writing demands readers. We let our friends read our early work. Our parents. Other writers. We let editors take a crack when we’re at a certain level. Agents if we get that far. Working in isolation and sharing nothing often nets you nothing — we are the worst judges of our own work. Creative agitation is an essential, and that agitation comes from readers. Readers with comments. Critiques. Complaints. And, of course, compliments.

Here’s the thing. I joke that the article makes me pee bees and roll my eyes so hard that I’ll break my own neck, and it does that, a little bit. Mostly, though, it just makes me sad to think that there might be writers out there who believe these things. Particularly who believe them because a teacher has told them this. (Teachers, like parents, are supposed to be good for us. They’re supposed to help us. Ironic how often the reverse ends up true, then.)

If you want to write:

Write.

Write a lot. As much as you are literally able.

Read a lot, too. And not just one thing. But all things. A panoply of voices. A plethora of subjects.

Read, write, read, write.

And be read, in turn.

If you want schooling? Do it. If you want critique? Do it. But go in, eyes open. Do not believe in your own inherent talent, or ego, or ability. Find ways to turn up the volume. Gain new skill-points in this Authorial RPG. Level up. Don’t be complacent.

You don’t have to suffer for your art.

You don’t have to do it in some hyperbaric isolation chamber.

You don’t have to just put it out in the world, nor do you have to keep it from the world.

Find your own way.

And go with your gut.

Want it.

Work it.

Write it down.

NOW SOMEBODY SET THAT TO A COOL BEAT AND LET’S DANCE

231 comments

    • You mean JK Rowling says that about MFA writing programs? Yeah, she might. She did that work on her own. Many, many writers do. But all of us get help from somebody, whether it’s a brilliant editor, a ruthlessly honest friend, and incisive partner, or a smartass kid.

      That doesn’t, in itself, make writing programs useless, nor does it make the arguments being made in both articles invalid. She’s just an example of one writer who took a specific route.

  • Welcome to the internet, where people nobody has ever heard of get to spew their mis-informed horseshit with the veneer of legitimacy provided by some website they’ve also never heard of. Ryan Boudinot? Never heard of him. Never read anything he has written, and he’s likely not going to write anything I’d want to write.

    Chuck, I’m almost inclined to complain that you’re giving this some guy an ounce of legitimacy by even bothering to shit all over his article (deservedly so).

    • But — should the fame of the writer be the only qualifier? Why would you have heard of him? Most decent writers fly under radar all their careers. We’re only experts on the tiniest slice of the publishing pie — generally, the stuff we enjoy. This doesn’t mean he’s great or wise, just that being a lowly creative writing teacher shouldn’t eliminate his thoughts from consideration.

      • Also, lots of people post online in order to widen their circle of followers, in which case, home run for Ryan Boudinot. This was maybe his big moment.

      • What if he walked up to you on the street and started pontificating about some subject? What level of credibility would you give him. My point is the internet is full of people spewing B.S. Why should we care? He’s nobody. Let him continue to be nobody.

  • Thanks for the thoughtfulness of the article. I posted both on my wall, and find that in some cases I agree with both in some places where they completely disagree with each other. (What can I say, I’m a Schrödinger’s Cat kinda guy, sometimes.)

    I do think you missed his point in the section on publishing, though. He seemed to be making the point that He has no practical advice on breaking into the publishing world in its current form. That seems a legitimate and even humble admission from a teacher. Considering the bombast of the article, I was grateful for that.

    Ultimately, it’s nice for me to see people arguing about writing. It means they still think it matters.

    • Well, sure, but if you have no legitimate or practical advice on publishing, then it’s best in the next breath not to offer advice on publishing. He wasn’t making a statement about himself, he was making a statement about the industry, and I found that short-sighted.

  • What a wonderful screed. This is closer to my sensibility — but it still leaves out the question, “Do MFA programs build strong bodies 12 ways?” I like the phrase “fidgety fuck.”

    What triggered my interest in this was a commentary on the editorial page of the Minnesota Daily, by the U’s own creative writing professor, around 1975. I was at the time a wretch in the U’s publications sector. This man was someone I envied — position, life in literature, permission to walk his dog on campus without a leash. He was exempt from all the rules of life, it seemed. But he was disgusted. With the youth of his students,their morbidity, their grandiosity, their unletteredness. I kept thinking, “What if I was a student of his, and I read this?” So, ever since then, I have pitied CW teachers and not envied them. And hated them all because this one was so ungrateful for his supine existence. He was so unhappy, while having everything I wanted from life. Some kind of lesson there!

    Ya know, I just had another thought! (Everyone clusters around my feet, hushed.) Why is it such a fracking big deal to be “a writer,” anyway? People talk about it like it’s the knighthood of the roundtable. In truth, you are never “a writer.” Writer is just a hat, like a beret or Stetson — ya wear it upon occasion, but it’s not really your life. Your life is your family, your bills and your bubbling brain — just like every other lost soul in the universe. This is what I think: we’re all afraid of dying and being dead,in about equal parts. “Writer” is just a strategy people use to sidestep those eventualities, and stay out of The System. It’s like wanting a cool job, like working in a used record shop, or herding goats on Gibraltar — something to protect us from the fate of all other humans, punching the clock and being a jerk. It is A LIE. Those people who wear that hat still have all the weird feelings in their tummies about fulfillment, honest living, and their place among the stars. When I think of MFA programs, I think of a classroom of people hoping to cut a deal with their fate as humans — to be special. It is especially stupid when you think they could have chosen rock stars or mattress testers. We are deluding ourselves that — even if we follow Chuck Wendig’s passionate advice — we are still just another bowling ball, rolling toward lane’s end. The challenge of all this is to grow up and accept that we live not by imagination or having classier friends than or current sad lot but by ordinary human hygiene, taking out the trash and loving the person you’re talking to. And you ain’t never out of The System cuz The System is in your sorry blood.

    • I like this, my favorite part being “something to protect us from the fate of all other humans, punching the clock and being a jerk.” Ain’t that the truth!

    • This is beautifully said!
      For me, writing and getting my mfa is/was about feeling connected to myself and other people. Otherwise I am just running scared from all those feelings you so beautifully articulate.

    • Thank you, mfinley98, for this poignant reminder so perfectly expressed. This is exactly what I needed to hear today; it’s been a dispiriting week, and I was losing perspective.

  • I am a late life writer who had to transition from business, military, and technical writing to killing all my darlings. I was so uninitiated, I thought that Faulkner/King meant my wonderful characters. Fortunately, another writer friend came along before I could do any misguided carnage.

    I’ve done fine with two horrible novellas and a novel that will never see the light of day. I paid off a major debt with my online writing pennies and have no regrets! Thanks for this rebuttal. The article sucks the life out of potential great storytellers.

    I see the same mess from MFAs in art. They can’t render worth spit, but they suck the souls out of people who are better than they are.

    BTW: I know the person who wrote that article. It was posted on Facebook. Facebook put yours up right after it, LOL!

    Finally: NO ONE knows whether anyone has talent until we are on our death beds and our life flashes before our eyes.

  • I think we are barking up the wrong tree. The teacher is not trying to give the reader any constructive criticism, rather he is exposing his bitterness and disappointment. If he wants to be entertained by his students change his attitude toward his students. Taking a writing class doesn’t mean you intend to be a writer nor does it mean that his class should be treated as though it is the ONLY class.
    A comment about Narcissism, I think most people in the arts are some what self absorbed if not very self absorbed. This attention to oneself is needed to take risks, to believe we are the best; admittedly when you’re high on yourself when your fall it can be very painful but these people tend to get right back on the horse. Therefore, I think this teacher will be up and running very soon.

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