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

  • Of all the things that annoyed me about the article I think the one about reading ‘seriously’ was the worst. I have so many friends who dragged themselves through ‘Classics’ because they thought it was what they should be reading, and said they wanted to read YA but didn’t have time and thought it better to spend their time reading books that would look good on their uni applications. And I was like, “Dude, you’re sixteen/seventeen/whatever age they were at the time, this is exactly when you’re meant to be reading YA. Not that you shouldn’t read classics. But they are sucking the joy out of your life right now.”

    Mind you I went through a phase of point-blank refusing to read classics for like five years. I even used to hate Shakespeare, which amazes people now because I’m a hardcore Hamlet fangirl. But you know how I got into Shakespeare? Via a reference in a YA book. Likewise I read “A Tale Of Two Cities” because of how much it was referenced in books by Cassandra Clare. Nope, not a high brow route to classics. But it worked. And I enjoyed them more because of it.

    I’m … not sure where I was going with this comment. Point is I hate people who only read pretentious books, especially if they don’t actually enjoy them. That just defeats the point.

    • Miriam Joy, why are you giving advice like: “Not that you shouldn’t read classics. But they are sucking the joy out of your life right now.” when in the very next sentence, you say:

      “Mind you I went through a phase of point-blank refusing to read classics for like five years. I even used to hate Shakespeare, which amazes people now because I’m a hardcore Hamlet fangirl.”

      You refused “point-blank” to read classics for 5 years, and even “hated” Shakespeare, which you refused to read, telling friends not to read books that you “hated” (while not having read them)? but then:

      “But you know how I got into Shakespeare? Via a reference in a YA book.”

      So while you were AVOIDING CLASSICS that teachers were assigning, you instead found Shakespeare through a YA book reference? And you’re bragging about this? How about if you’d just READ Hamlet the first time your TEACHER assigned it instead of refusing to read it and telling all your friends not to?

      Maybe you need to sit down, shut up and LISTEN to your teachers. You have a lot to learn about literature, friendship and life itself.

      • I was never assigned to read Hamlet until long after I’d got over my stubbornness (and I always read the books I had to read for school, even if I didn’t enjoy them), so I’m not sure where you got that idea. I just didn’t read them in my own time. Nor was I specifically telling friends not to read certain books and again, this conversation happened after I’d opened up my reading tastes a lot more — the friend in particular read classics exclusively despite often finding them boring and wishing she had time to read YA fiction simply because she wanted her reading to look impressive on her uni application and stuff. I was encouraging her to read what she wanted to read and not what she thought she ought to read.

        In my last years at school English Lit was actually my favourite subject and I adored some of the texts we studied, which did include Hamlet, prompting much fangirling, but I still maintain a belief in reading for pleasure and not so that you can say you’ve read something.

        What I was trying to say is that it’s pointless to read books just because you think you’re supposed to enjoy them — coming to books in your own time and as you wish is more likely to make you enjoy them. And just because something is well regarded does not mean you have to enjoy it. You can read all the “lowbrow” books in the world, too. I came to certain classics in my own time and liked them a lot better than I would have done if I’d been forced to read them; there are others that I still strongly dislike. (Also, all this kind of depends on your definition of classic. Like, does Tolkien count? Because I read Tolkien when I was about seven and adored it. I just never thought of it as a classic.)

        Also, please don’t patronise me, that’s really unnecessary. You seem to have assumed I’m still in school, when I’m not, and I think you’ve generally misunderstood what I was saying. Perhaps I didn’t phrase it very clearly; I hope this reply clears things up.

    • I was the same way. I thought reading the classics would somehow, make me a better writer. That if read them, I would have all the knowledge and skills to be published. For years I said Jane Austen was my favorite author just because it sounded good.. Like really? Because someone told me that! So lame.

      • If it makes you feel better, I picked up all of the Star Wars novelizations (this is around 1999) so I could learn how to make my action scenes seem more lively and true to the movies I would watch. Bright side to this is that one of these was written by Don Glut, who writes a lot of cheesy stuff that I adore wholeheartedly. But yeah, all writers have these moments. 🙂

    • I totally get what you’re saying. I did the same thing: if I found a reference in something I was reading that harkened back to an older work, I would make a note to read it. And it was one heck of a journey while doing so because it allowed me to find new works to like and to play compare/contrast with those works to see how different authors read different works and what they took from that. For me, it was Marvel Comics (they always dropped literary stuff), and they taught me a lot about classics and other works that I would have never gone for.

  • The only reasonable relationship to have to “classics” is to read them because you like them, like any other books. “War and Peace” is far from everybody’s idea of a good time, but I read it seven times (battle scenes! office politics! how to write a scene — cause Tolstoy is a screenwriter, just compare his scenes to Jackie Collins and you will see what I mean!) I apprenticed with the dead, cause hey, their books are still around and the 19th century Greats were all pulp writers. *fist bump w/ Sand, Dickens, et al*

    And what’s a classic gets decided by Mere Humans, whose credentials as Voice of Posterity is suspect. (By the way, notice how many books written by Black and/or female writers keep getting “discovered”? cause hey, only certain people write classics.)

    You are so damn right, Chuck. This article is FULL of poison, especially the “born talented” and “must be serious by teens” part. I got this bullshit both in arts programs and STEM programs, which tells me it’s really there so that children of practitioners (yeah, faculty brats, looking at CHOO) have a leg up, and mere working-class stiff, first-gens, Not the Usual People … well, all o’y’all can head to the service entrance and scrub the toilets of your Betters, right.

    Thank you, sir, for fuming on our behalf. *friendly hive-dance to piss-bees*

  • This. A million times.
    I’m one of those “apparently rare few” (which I don’t believe is as rare as some people like to believe) that is a “natural” if my tutors were to be believed. I did my BA(hons) and it taught me that what I lack is the teaspoon to the bucketload of what I have. Voice mostly the same, in and out. Remarkable lack of dialog for someone who talks as much as I do. I sweated for my 2:1 and I loved every instant of it. I’m horribly in debt, but I’d do it again…and again… I had more problems than cats have lives. My tutors told me to keep trying. Never once did I get a “go away Kai”.
    Am I published yet?
    Fuck no! That teaspoon of self confidence is a killer. So yes, I may have a fair to middling talent (mostly because I read like it’s going out of fashion, don’t care what, as long as it’s readable) but that’s bugger all if I can’t/won’t hit go.
    I read this article and thought “sour grapes”. For him to teach an MFA, he has to have one I think. So thank you for writing this – all my post had was a lot of ranty swearing.

    Kai

  • March 1, 2015 at 1:54 PM // Reply

    Those who can, do.
    Those who can’t, teach.
    Those who are incompetent teachers, say the fault lies with their students.

    Ever see something nasty crawl from under a rock and feel an urge to stomp on it? The article’s author should have stayed under that rock.

    • “Those who can’t, teach.”

      That’s every bit as misguided as many aspects of Boudinot’s piece. Vonnegut taught. Robert Olmstead teaches. Some others who have taught, or still teach:

      Tobias Wolff
      Salman Rushdie
      Zadie Smith
      Junot Diaz
      Gary Shteyngart
      Jonathan Safran Foer
      Toni Morrison

      I’d say there are a lot of writers who “do” in that list.

      There’s no doubt the Boudinot has a jaded and tired tone, and I’m glad he’s no longer teaching. At the same time, it’s kind of a foil to the whole, “If you only work hard and dream enough, it WILL happen,” mentality that seems to saturate many places online. (Usually by those making money by selling the feel-good dream of success for all.)

      I definitely don’t think one needs an MFA to make it; in fact, I’d argue that an MFA program creates writers who often sound like the programs from which they emerge. But it seems dispelling this piece entirely because of its tone is to miss something worthy of hearing and discussing.

    • That’s because they didn’t really think about what they had read before they commented. They’re human, just like the rest of us. This ‘teacher’ is just a pretentious asshole venting years of frustration, frustration with what, I have no idea.

  • Great response to the piece, Chuck. (Also, I love the Clue reference.)

    I feel like this guy is coming from a place of reading the same types of stories, again and again and again, and wanting his students to give him something more. If you’ve been in enough writing critique classes or writing groups, or if you edit a lit mag, you will start to feel this way. I don’t have an MFA, nor any plans to acquire one, but I *have* read a ton of stories that seem to follow some kind of unwritten MFA Writerly Rules as the editor of a lit mag, and they drive me nuts. They are technically proficient, but ultimately soulless. And if what I am getting from this guy is the same vibe, then I agree with his overall sentiment that lots of people in these programs should quit. Not quit writing altogether, but QUIT WRITING LIKE THAT.

    Ultimately, though, I think you are right about doing whatever works for you. There’s no one right way to write a story, or a book, just as there’s no one singular right interpretation of a book by its readers. There are many ways that *might* work, but you just have to have at it to find out.

  • Love this! Oh yes! “Writers are born with talent” is utter bullshit. “Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t.” More bullshit. Sure, not all writers are “created” equal. They aren’t raised equally, either. “Talent” is more than a matter of congenital luck. What kind of childhood you have is important. There’s luck involved. If you were born into subsistence farming life, well, the odds are stacked against you. Being born into a society where you can get an education requires a degree of luck. If you were born into middle class life in Western civilization, isn’t that another special kind of luck? As you grew up, were you encouraged to ask questions? Did your earliest teachers (including parents) help you believe that you can learn? Were you exposed to stories at a young age? All these can affect what people like him will label “talent.” What if you didn’t have those things? What if you don’t get that until you’re 50 and divorced and finally seeing the reality of your life? As long as you’re alive you can learn and grow. And craft isn’t rocket surgery. Yes, some people may not end up with enough time and gumption and experience and insight to become great or even good writers. But that’s not a matter of heredity. You don’t need to be 20th-generation royalty of letters to be a writer. And right, neither do you have to already be a dedicated writer as a teenager. Writing isn’t Olympic gymnastics that you need to start at age 3.

    And yet, and yet…

    Talent isn’t enough, is it? The streets are littered with talent. Plenty of shitty books were written by writers with talent. Writing takes more than talent. It takes craft. An MFA program isn’t going to make you into a writer. It’s not a sausage factory. But it does give you the opportunity in the form of time, peers smart and not so much, and instructors who may become mentors or merely informative, to learn how to write and to learn how to read and critique other writing. And it’s not the only way to get those things. Just an expensive way. (Oh, yes.)

    This guy is young and thinks he has truth in a box. He’s not old enough to know how little he knows. In fact, I think that anyone who thinks they’ve arrived and have nothing left to learn—and feels entitled enough to put themselves in a position to judge whether other people could learn—is to be pitied.

  • I rarely comment, because you usually have a fist load, and you need another one from me about as much as you need another hole in the head. Really my comments don’t amount to much more than me too’s. However, this time I feel I must, even if it’s only to say bravo and thank you for nailing how I feel about that post.

    Thank you.

  • Yeah, I read that article. I didn’t pee bees because, of course, that’s just ridiculous. Or painful.
    But yeah, I do question the usefulness of qualifications in writing. It might help. It might not. Having a diploma on your wall doesn’t make you a writer.
    But I agree with Chuck. If you want to do it, because you want to do it, do it. Only don’t think it’s a highway to success.
    “Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening.” Well, maybe, but there are plenty of people around who are writing, publishing, getting published. It really isn’t rocket science.
    WRITE A GOOD BOOK.

  • The man’s article does smack of bitter grapes. And the last section on woodshedding was almost laughable, because he seemed so proud of his ‘suffering’ and spending seven years writing crap he wouldn’t show anyone. I’m not sure I’d be proud of that but hey whatever floats your boat.

    I think you nailed it and him, Chuck, his goal in this article was to discourage and mislead writers – not encourage them. Brings to mind the old cliche ‘those who know do and those who don’t teach’ or something like that. Personally, I don’t give a rat’s ass that he was a professor or that he spent seven years in the dark mentally masturbating. He missed an opportunity to impart actual helpful experience and advice and instead tried to ‘shock’ us with his ‘frankness.’ Yawn.

    Personally, I prefer writers like you who just tell it how it is from your own experiences. And thanks for that.

    Annie

  • I don’t have an MFA, but I do have 12 years of journalism experience. You know that stereotype of the grouchy old editor with the cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a cup of black coffee more corrosive than battery acid sitting on his desk? THAT’S the guy who taught me how to craft a story. I absolutely hated him. But if I ever actually manage to get a novel published, I’ll put his name in the acknowledgements.

    • Me, too. Writing for newspapers and a stint as a writer for medical publications taught me how to write cleanly, clearly, and organize information. I took one creative writing class (post-college.) The prof was a poet. He flirted with the pretty women and read his own poems to us.

  • Not a writer, but a visual artist (I like writing, but I’m neither good at it, nor is it my passion).

    The bit about it being too late by the time you’re in your 30’s burned me up. This gets thrown around a lot in just about any field, especially creative ones. I get very tired of being told that I’m too old to seriously take up something creative. I’m actually in the beginnings of becoming a self-employed artist (not sustainable yet, and still requires a supplemental day job), which is awesome and wouldn’t be happening if I listened to people who tell me I had to be serious about it since my teens or early 20’s.

    A good friend put it to me like this “Even if you never get a career out of it, every day you get up and put a pencil to paper you’ve won, because the dream isn’t dead.”

    We’d all like to be able to live off of our creative work, but that’s not usually the reason we do it in the first place. We do it because there’s a thing in our heads that wants to get out. Shame on this former teacher who wants us to keep it in there against its will!

  • The thing that enraged me the most about this, I mean besides the patently false premise, was how *almost* reasonable it sounded. How to a newbie it might read like gospel truth. How dismissive. How denigrating. How many people just floundering into their confidence with their art are going to read this bit of angsty/aloof bile and take it to heart. To up and quit. It makes me want to shake this guy really, really hard.

  • I am so glad I never took a class from this fellow…I started writing at 55 and he would have had me throw in the literary towel before I could even get it wet. This pompous attitude is why I write for fun rather than to impress some wahoo like him. If I end up published then I’ll be happy….if I don’t I’ll still be happy. Raspberries to him!!

  • I just came here to bask on glorious vengeful shaudenfreude, because you hit the nail on the head with everything wrong (and the one thing right) with this article. Also, I started writing in my teens. I am now in my twenties and at the start of my career. The reason I HAVE a career is because I gave up on living up to some adolescent ideal I had of writing only High Literature. If I was the same person now as I was ten years ago…I’d live up to this guy’s expectations, but I would also be a much less interesting and useful human being, with a lot less to say.

  • I am currently in a graduate program to get my masters in creative writing. Why? Because I get my excess student aid to help pay my bills, no other reason. The plus to this is that I am learning some stuff about things I had never considered before. Like pulse, beats and tension. I wrote them but never knew what they were called. The sole thing I dislike about academic creative writing is the word limitation. It causes a reduction of my stories to 1000 to 1200 words. Worth the money? I don’t know.
    I published my first book in Nov 14 and it is doing well for 3 months, my Feb royalties should be around $300. I am about to turn 60 in July, I read much more than I write and recently gave up the full time stressful life of an accountant to write more than I read.
    Will other people not like what I write? That is a given but as long as I am happy with it I don’t give a flying fuck what other people think.

    Here is to writing and to the courage it takes to believe in yourself and do it. Writers must have brave souls.
    Writers must write. Just like complainers must complain. Get Busy.

  • Chuck Wendig: reading stupid-ass self-important commentary and taking one for the team so you don’t have to. 😉

    Thanks, hoss, much appreciated! 🙂

  • Most of your criticism here, Chuck, is right on. I found myself thinking some of the same thoughts when I read the article, but I laughed my ass off again when you quoted it:

    “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.”

    I think you missed the obvious hyperbole in that one. I took the entire letter as a rant by a narcissistic disgruntled failure who couldn’t write so went into teaching and discovered he couldn’t do that either. But I laughed. And, yes, I laughed again when reading this blog post because 1) I was abused as a child and have been tempted to write about it but just can’t bring myself to it; and 2) I’ve read those shitty error-filled memoirs that serve as nothing more than therapy. Do I wish more pain on those who suffered (probably more than I did)? No. Do I think the ex-MFA motherfucker who wrote that does? No. But it was the best line in the whole piece. All sentimentality aside.

  • I do believe in innate talent, and I don’t see why that upsets people so much. You can either come up with a story, or you can’t. You have an imagination and a feel for words, or you don’t. If you lack an imagination no amount of hard work will get you there.

    Here’s an easy test: sit in a bar or a restaurant or an airport, pick out people around you and spin stories about them. Can you do it? Can you create multiple narratives for the same person? OK then, you have imagination. If you can’t then you’re going to need to think about a career other than writing fiction.

    Now make a random statement. Anything, doesn’t matter. Let’s say, “I am bald.” How many ways can you rewrite that basic information? Change person? “His head is bald.” Add description? “His head reflected the light of the Christmas tree.” Make it amusing? “My scalp long ago rejected the unwanted camouflage of hair.” Hostile? “Hair? Fuck you, I don’t need hair.” Surreal? “My hair fled before the relentless advance of my forehead.”

    If exercises A and B are easy and mildly amusing, you can probably write.

    Obviously talent isn’t enough, sadly you still need to work. But that means different things to different people. Some writers are fast, others slow, some sweat and strain, others zip merrily along. There’s no right answer. The rest of the original piece is mostly nonsense. You don’t have to read Proust or Pynchon, you don’t have to start in your teens, and I still complain about not having time to write.

    If you have imagination and a facility for language and are willing to work, you can write. If not, then you’re going to have to do something else with your life.

  • I’m entertained that he references Gatsby, a book that is routinely force-fed to high school students, presumably because it’s short. I ***hated*** Gatsby in high school– not because it’s a bad book, or because I was dumb (well, one of those things may be true) but because the book demands a certain amount of life experience for the reader to genuinely identify with it, and high school students by and large don’t have that. I won’t criticize ANYBODY for not liking Gatsby the first time they read it, for whatever reason. But I *will* tell them to try it again when they’re older.

  • I enjoyed the comments here. Not to say I didn’t appreciate your words, Chuck, but the fact that several other writers commented in the affirmative helps to put the nay-saying author into perspective. I read that line about not starting after 40 and it made my heart sink. I can only imagine what the article would do to someone who doesn’t have another, informed perspective.

  • Peeing bees, tee hee.

    I wanted to be a writer in my teens too, but liked spending my time on other things more. Like lazing. The fire in my belly didn’t catch until my early thirties. By then, I had an MS in Agronomy, a job as a Soil Conservationist for the USDA, a husband, a kid. No MFA.

    I wrote like crazy, read, critiqued, got critiqued, work-shopped, read more, wrote more. Ten years later, my first publishing contract came in the mail. It can be done.

    Love this line, btw:

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

    There are far better ways of making a point than wishing more suffering of a victim of sexual abuse.

  • That whole thing that dude wrote sounds like an older white dude who is becoming increasingly frustrated with his books not selling and trying to scare new kids with better ideas out of the marketplace. I’m guessing his Gee-Pop-Pop and Mee-maw weren’t excessively impressed with his Two Whole Degrees and 1500 pages of unread (but important!) works. I don’t have a lot of patience for folks like that. I’m too busy with my “didn’t get a contract until my 40s, and my 5 book deal” to pay attention to Learned Men such as him.

    Can you write a story? Can you make me stop everything because I MUST read the rest of your story? Boom, you’re a writer.

  • This made me laugh out loud. A lot. I TOTALLY and unequivocally agree. The ending message is a straightforward and boiled-down-to-its-essence advice piece to writers on writing that is right on the mark.

  • OK, OK! What really, really grinds my gears is this “On a related note: Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question, prove that they are not.”

    IMPOSTER SYNDROME IS REAL. AND IT’S CRIPPLING FOR SOME.

    I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but you first start out as a person (kid in my case) scribbling away in a notebook at home, dreaming about getting published and being read. This is the reality of writing for you and it doesn’t match up with your idea of what “real” writers do. Everyone has an idealized version of what a writer is and a teacher has to sit you down and tell that that’s bullshit. Being a writer is about actually writing and it doesn’t involve secret rituals, a fancy desk and special pen. Some people need help to gain confidence and come into their identity as a writer. This guy is basically denying writers of their identities.

    It’s human to doubt. It’s human to want to be better and assume there is a way to being a “real” writer. It’s hard to believe the answer is so simple as “you just need to write”. I needed to hear this in order to get the light bulb moment. It makes me so sad and angry that there are people who don’t think they’re writers because of this asshole.

  • I had read that article a few days ago. Kinda tripped over the “Writers are born with talent” subtitle. And, since I’m 65 years old and planning to indie two books later in the year, I got even more tripped up over “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.?

    So thanks for your comments…now I feel better.

  • Overall, it came off as narcissistic arrogance, a power trip. Thank you, CW for doing damage control on the discouraging negativity. We should all reblog to try to rescue unsuspecting imbibers of the poison.

  • March 1, 2015 at 3:01 PM // Reply

    OMG, thank you so much for writing this. I’ve been stewing about it ever since it was posted–especially since all my friends seem to be sharing it and pointing to it as the reason we should all give up.

    Writers write. I don’t need some disgruntled soul-sucking Dream Vampire to stomp all over my determination to tell stories because it didn’t work out for him. You have to hand it to the people who, not content with their own disillusionment, have to crap all over everyone else, too.

    My favorite quote from Calvin Coolidge: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

    The problem comes when someone posts an article with some glimmers of truth to it–he’s right–writers *should* be readers. Like maniacmarmoset said, he comes across as almost reasonable. This notion, however, that you can’t be a serious writer if you’ve never read Wuthering Heights or Moby Dick is just elitism, pure and simple. I love your answer: you need a serious commitment to reading, not a commitment to reading serious books.

    You know why I didn’t continue my childhood scribblings? Because of mindsets like this one. I thought the stories I had to tell weren’t ‘serious’ enough. And while I woodshedded my stories (thus never learning how to get past some of their major flaws) and continued to read, it took throwing caution to the winds and putting my material out there, getting involved with critique groups, and being bold enough to take a chance in order to become published.

    I’m guessing this guy would tell me I’m still not a ‘real’ writer, since I’m not published with the Big Six (or Five, depending on which week it is). I’m glad I stopped listening to guys like this. I already *have* a mother. 😉

  • Totally agree, Chuck.

    I have an MFA. It almost ruined me as a writer because I write spec fic, and literary writers/MFA teachers don’t seem to like that much. I was told in a workshop that I was ‘wasting my talent.’ That one workshop undermined my confidence for several years. In spite of this experience, I also learned A LOT getting that degree. I got to work with some incredible writers. I got to know some incredible students. I wouldn’t give it back.

    I do mentoring and editing of other writers. I see all sorts of writing. I have seen people who I would have sworn would never be able to write well, turn out some pretty effing amazing work and get published by large publishers. So, he’s just wrong. You don’t get good writers by beating them down. Most writers are sensitive. Help them, MFA teacher dude. Don’t crush them with your haughty. If you feel this way about teaching, for the love of god QUIT. Oh wait, you did.

  • Glad that guy’s out of the classroom.

    I read the so-called hard books because I was a lit major, and eventually a lit grad student. Didn’t like most of it, but that was fine; it made me read outside my comfort zone. Gave me an appreciation for Why This Is Amazing Or Important(tm), even if I considered it the literary equivalent of eating my lima beans.

    But I learned to write–to tell stories, to put words together–not from that stuff. I learned to tell stories from reading things I like…which were not, for the record, The Great Gatsby, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or Jane Eyre, or Finnegan’s Wake.

    And, most importantly, from having feedback every step of the way when I did finally start telling my own stories.

  • March 1, 2015 at 3:33 PM // Reply

    Yes, yes, yes — to everything you agreed with and disagreed with in the article.

    I think what writers are born with (different from non-writers) is the DESIRE to tell a story, and because we have that need to write, we write, and read, and write some more and learn from our mistakes. Talent? Maybe talent in perseverance. My daughter has been drawing from the day she could hold a crayon and is super-talented — but she had so much desire plus basic ability that the two together parlayed into a scholarship at a prestigious art school.

    I am one of those people who always wanted to be a writer … yet I didn’t take it seriously until I was 30. I wasn’t the best writer in my creative writing classes (I know, my teachers told me) but I was probably the only one in a decade from my school who actually kept writing when I left.

  • March 1, 2015 at 3:36 PM // Reply

    I’ve read both the article and this response. I was in the middle of writing a response to the article. No need now. Thanks Chuck, great job. I can go back to my WIP now, content.

  • Articles such as the one in question is why I bulk at spending any time and money in an actual writing class. I’d have to be absolutely certain the teacher is not a toxic cynic with his/her own agenda.

  • I am so goddamned sick of the talent myth! I had the same reaction as you, Chuck. I actually wrote a blog post on how the talent myth is toxic a few weeks ago, but I don’t want to spam so I won’t link it here.

    I used to be one of those “Real Deal” students, and I can say from experience this guy is not only full of shit, but a shitty teacher as well. The only difference between the “Real Deal” students and the rest is we’d already cultivated such a love of literature that we learned in these bad teacher’s classes DESPITE them. The difference between a good and bad teacher is a good teacher knows how to engage the “bad” students as well, and it’s obvious this shithead never tried because he was convinced everyone’s character was set in the womb. What a fucking idiot.

  • Thank you. I grew up thinking I had to be a scientist because my two writer parents thought I had a knack for science. Now that I am retired, I am writing. Maybe my writing is good; maybe it is terrible, but I find your blog much more stimulating than the article written by that twit. Ok. Back to writing.

  • As both a teacher and a writer, that article filled me with RAGE. Thank god he’s an EX-teacher, because apparently he used teaching as a combination paycheck ego-stroke instead of a legitimate way to expand students’ minds, skills, and ability to apply themselves. In fact, he seems like he did the opposite of that. ON PURPOSE. What kind of evil-mindedness drives such a person? And thank you for quoting my brain rant against it out into the world in such a cogent way, Chuck.

  • Yeah. I kinda get the “born with it” thing, but only in a thin way. I have more “innate” talent than some of my classmates because I could barely speak as a child but had a LOT to say. The written word was my first language. (My favorite Hank Moody quote: “On the spectrum? Yes, but aren’t we all?”) But that’s not to say that others can’t and won’t both catch up AND overtake. I take umbrage with the concept that if you weren’t serious about writing as a teenager you’ll never be any good. Sounds like the jealousy of the Academic to me, someone who’s spent sooooooo much of his life writing and still hasn’t written great his American novel…how on earth could he face talented students and still feel superior without this little belief of his? I was serious about writing as a teenager, but also about art. Art won for a while, because a design career actually gives you a way to make a living while you’re honing your skills, and, from what I could see as a twenty-something, writing did not.(Mind you, I graduated from design school wanting to be a writer, but thanks bejeebus I didn’t pursue it. I had to live a lot more life before I could possibly write anything that wasn’t trite jibberish. I was NEVER going to be an early prodigy in the literary world.)
    The thing that is most caustic and harmful about this article is his one size fits all approach. We all come to what we come to from different directions, and to say that his way is the only way is a barrel full of bullsh*t.

  • Ye gods. What a mean-minded arrogant….gaaah. So, you’re only a ‘real writer’ if, like him, you are utterly convinced of your own vast importance, then? Also…If he doesn’t think you can be a writer without some mystic inborn skill, with which you will succeed and without which you won’t, whether or not you ever take a class, then his entire teaching career was, presumably, either entirely pointless, a knowing fraud, or both.

  • I love this! This might be the best piece I’ve seen by you. At least for me personally. I’ve been following you for years and agree with most things you say, but I am nearly finished with my MFA program and I read this article with interest. My reaction was not quite anger, but more one of sadness. From the perspective of a writing guru, though, I can see why this would piss you off. I can understand that he may have been mired in teaching hell with a bunch of students that lacked the drive to excel. I’ve seen it in other students, but I think most overcome that if they stay with the program. My experience has been rewarding, and I’ve seen how much writing can improve with the right mindset and the proper encouragement.

    Thanks for a fantastic breakdown and for making me feel better about what I’m doing! I signed up for my program because it had been almost 30 years since I’d had an English class, and although I could write dialogue and had some interesting ideas, getting my words into real fighting shape took a lot more work than I’d even realized when I began. It was almost like I needed the program just to see what I was doing wrong. I feel armed to wage war against my muse now. As far as being successful, I think all it takes is a stubborn streak the size of Texas and a mindset to write as much as possible. I look forward to meeting you in June when you come to visit Seton Hill.

  • Man, I knew you were pissed when I saw you posting on a Sunday! I’m really surprised that this guy, after years of experience, allowed himself to submit something like this. A graduate student who (I paraphrase) “doesn’t want the words to make her work so hard’? That smells like a bald faced lie to me. I just hope not too many people take him seriously.

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