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

235 comments

  • March 31, 2016 at 2:28 PM // Reply

    Seems to me that talent is just a measure of where someone is on a linear scale of aptitude at the time. Some people get it sooner and are able to achieve more in a shorter period of time while others have to first make up the distance to where the first guy (or gal) started. Mozart was a genius–but not before he had lessons. Ditto Eddie Van Halen. He’s said to have practiced to the degree that he was still practicing after shows when everyone else (Dave) was off skirt-chasing. !0,000 hours applies here and is more probably too little for the art and craft we’re talking about.

    Also, the degree of success really depends upon what a writer hopes to achieve with his (or her) writing. There are NYT Bestselling writers I wouldn’t read if I were chain-locked in a Port-a-Jon for a month and there are others I won’t miss. There are occasional literary authors who manage commercial success and some commercially successful (genre) authors that fudge the lines between what commercial and literary even mean. I’ve never heard one of them say they were born writers.

    Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry spent a lifetime building the skill to write Lonesome Dove in a vernacular that is not only authentic, but light years from the kind of language you’ll find in what most creative writing teachers refer to as “classics.”

    JK Rowling has a gift. About that I’m sure there is no question. But she also pursued her interest with a ferocity rivaling that of a starving lioness–in fact, she was financially destitute when she did it (which I find a far greater hurdle than time management–but that’s me). Yes, people overcome incredible adversity to build the merest of writing careers–but having a creative writing professor in a degree program that you’re paying for tell you that you suck is downright anti-capitalist. As a consumer, you have a right to a product that the uni says it will supply you for the right money. Nobody said you weren’t allowed to suck (and as I recall, there are applications and writing samples and statements of purpose that could have thinned the ranks of his classes so they couldn’t have sucked THAT badly). My point is, that his students made it through the selection process and now it’s up to him to teach them–not to criticize and dismiss them because they didn’t come to class with The Great Gatsby already written (as if anyone would care to watch a spoiled rich kid train wreck his life in the 21st century–we can find that on the news).

    Thanks, Chuck, for reinforcing my belief that no matter how much I suck, there is still hope!

    Cheers!

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