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

  • Y’know, I loved Moby Dick, but turning it into a reading mountain to climb doesn’t do anybody any favors except inflate the egos of self-indulgent halfwits like the boob you skewered in this rant (great rant, by the way). And I think James Joyce is a waste of time. Not a huge Thomas Hardy fan, either.

    You’re right that the “Writers are born, not made” myth is nonsense. It’s still popular with artists and musicians, but we need to root it right out of the writing profession. It’s up there with “Only bad writers revise; good writing should jump off your pen like Athena out of Zeus’ head” in ways to create permanent writer’s block and ensure a new writer never finishes anything.

    Also, I hate the whole woodshed concept. If I can use or reuse something, I’m going to, not waste it. Sure, most of what we write ends up being crap, but you can always improve crap. It’s just another word for fertilizer.

  • This is exactly the kind of teacher I had at sixth form when I was 17. He put me off any kind of creative writing study for about 8 years and only then I went to a scriptwriting workshop as a parent paid for me to go. The teacher refused for any work to be ‘genre’, explaining that the only way you would be taken seriously was if the story was grim, grey, northern, it was raining and someone had cancer as those were the only stories worth reading. Admittedly he was a little broader than that, but not much. We got into fights a lot and I walked.

    Like Chuck I was a kid fixated on being a writer (since exactly a week before I was seven) and had a similar list of interests as a teenager. I’d love to see some kind of chart or study showing what people were all about as teenagers and how much regret they are tinged by. Writing’s not one of them, despite my teachers’ best efforts.

  • I was fortunate to have skipped over teachers like this in my schooling – and if I ever did come across anyone who was a downer on my passion for writing, I’d just look at them as though they were speaking another language I didn’t understand with a blank expression on my face. Those people just did not compute to me, they did not exist in my bubble of my world… that’s how obsessed I was with writing.

    I knew I wanted to be a writer at such a young age, my folks just went with the flow… I was 6 years old when I knew I wanted to write; and know as much about the written language as possible. However, I was 15 years old when I began to take it all on board seriously.
    While my friends at school were worrying over make-up, boys, sex, who to make out with and their fingernails and who Bros was and who what was hot and wasn’t, I was worried about when the next Stephen King novel was coming out, which book was the hottest to read at QBD Bookstores and when I could sneak into my brother’s room to read his surfing magazines (yep, I was a tom-boy who loved that and a skatehead too!).

    Now? I’m editing my flash fiction from here and pulling it together to have it made into proper books to be either downloaded or bought as quick little reads by the public… 😀 Yeah, quick, creep stories for you all to read. 😀

  • So… if you don’t start ‘taking your writing seriously’ until after you emerge screaming from your teenage years you’re never gonna make it, huh?

    Well.. I’m in my forties now, so I guess it’s game over for me then, why am I even kidding myself *tosses current w-i-p into a furnace and loads up Kandy Krush.*

    KIDDING! Like HELL am I gonna do that..!

    Wow, that is one bitter and jaded ex-teacher right there. Couldn’t help noticing that the students he spoke highly of were the ones who sucked up every breath of his teaching and asked ‘how high?’ whenever he said jump. Also noticed he neglected to mention if those students in particular went on to have glorious literary careers. Ego thing going on much, I wonder?

    I’ve written creatively pretty much from the moment I learned to write. I wrote short stories to start with – a few good enough to win the odd contest, but most of them terrible – in my teenage years I moved into song lyrics as well (the odd one or two good, but most of them so overwrought and angsty even the most morose country singer would’ve gone “jeez girl, don’t you think you’re over-egging them puddings?”) and then stuck mostly to those two forms for the next twenty years or so – but pretty much as a HOBBY. I never got my arse in gear and worked out a plan to Make It Happen For Me As A Career, because I simply didn’t believe I had the ‘luxury’ of being able to do that. I had no clue how to go about it, because back then the information wasn’t there – or if it was, I had no idea how or where to find it. Does that mean I wasn’t ‘serious’ about my writing? I don’t think so. I put my heart, blood and soul into every single thing I wrote, even if I knew it would probably never be seen by anyone else ever, because that’s what my passion for writing has always hardwired me to do.

    If I’d read your blog twenty years ago, Chuck (in a parallel world where it would’ve existed back then) would I be at the stage I’m at now twenty years earlier? Again, I don’t know. I was a very different person back then – pretty messed up from a backlog of life issues. All I can say is I’m very glad I DID finally get to read it, and if at some point in the future I end up with a published novel it will be entirely down to you and so, so many of your posts (and writing books) that it happened. You said the things I needed to hear to get my arse in gear, and gave me the blueprint for making it happen. Thank you to infinity for that.

    And I can only hope that anyone disheartened by that ex-teacher’s post gets to see a link to your blog, so they can get the kind of encouragement they could REALLY use…

    Ooooh – now THERE’S an idea..!

    *rushes off with a plan*

  • Everything about your article struck home with me. I’ve been scrawling (and, later, typing) nonsensical stories for the better part of, well, let me not date myself, but let’s assume that there was a time before I could read and write, and pretty much three days after set time I began to read and write voraciously.
    Like, I would read milk cartons and then ask in all my 6-year-old innocence what homogenized meant.

    For a long time, until about middle school, writing, and singing, and dancing, and painting…. were about the only things I did. Looking back on it now, I was probably as close to being nothing but an artist as one can get (while still being a kid who fucked up her knees playing soccer every day).

    Then came those formative years where I was told AT EVERY TURN: Dancing is not a viable career option. Do something worthwhile. Then it was music. Then it was art. The diatribes went on. I was lucky enough to be book-smart, so I was told to do something worthwhile with the gift that was my intelligence.

    I’m sad to say this. I quit all things artistic. I became a scientist. I still am.
    The only people who ever believed in my writing were my 12th grade English teacher, who gifted me a beautiful journal at the end of the year and told me I’d fill it with something wonderful one day. Another person was a creative writing teacher I had a little while later, a truly bohemian spoken word poet named Harmony, who showed me how to love words again for the sheer joy of them.

    I only started to write for pleasure again when someone introduced me to NaNoWriMo three years ago.
    I’ve written three trunked novels. Now I’m trying to figure out how to outline and edit (in a way that works for me).

    I feel like I lost a lot of time, and that I’m still playing catch-up.

    So thank you for this post, and all the others, Chuck, that help me keep on keeping on. Without support from people like you, in all your bee-peeing glory, some of us might never find the courage to get up off the ground, brush off said bees (and orangutan feces and various other bodily fluids you’ve splashed us with over the years) and continue to do what it is we do.

    Thank you. Truly.

  • At age 37 I had an identity crisis (remember those?) All my life I’d wanted to be a writer, but instead I’d become a librarian, married a wonderful man, had a couple of kids, accumulated a mortgage and a nice set of special occasion dishware. At 37 my life was practically over and I’d not done the thing I wanted to do. Hubby was sympathetic, for a while. Then he told me to “write my damn book or shut the hell up about it.” Today I am older than 37, but I’ve had 30 published novels and been a self supporting author for 25 years. I write genre because I love it, not because it’s easier. I believe that talent for anything may be innate, but you’ll never know you’ve got it until you do the work required to bring it into play. People who tell you to quit…well, they clearly should not be running your life.

  • I had my poetic license revoked at age 15 in sophomore English when I submitted my first and last poem to my girlfriend and my teacher said that I couldn’t use the word “stealthy” to describe an unsuspected wave in the surf that knocked me off my feet, similar to my inner feelings of finding my first love. I’ve never written a poem since, but have said whatever I want in my fiction prose for the past 50 years.

  • I actually agreed with lots of the stuff he said, but noticed a lot of hating in his article. I came off with the impression that the standards for admission to the MFA program he worked at were rather low and thus the students, perhaps not really that serious.

    Being a serious writer as a teen: Well of course, I didn’t interpret this as meaning I had to have my career path decided and was applying to writing programs in college. No. I took it more to mean that you wrote and read during teen years like your life depended on it. That was me. I carried a notebook everywhere, wrote short stories, poetry, and planned novels that never quite happened. I actually began writing my first book at around 8 years old. So even though you can’t be “serious” about writing at this age, you can be very dedicated. By 14 I was reading adult books that if my mom had known about the magnificent sex scenes in them, she would’ve never let me read them (Those were the days of Anne Rice).

    Talent… Ah… Talent… The ever elusive characteristic. I think people are born with talents and tendencies. It is precisely that language talent that leads you to read a lot and want to write. I see it regularly when I take my kids to any kind of class or when I go to ballet class or something like that. Talent is what makes it easier for some people than others. The one with talent seems to do things instinctively, whereas others need more corrections. Of course, as with any skill, whether talented or not, you do need to put in the hours. The difference is a talented person might need a little less time to get to a particular level than a not so talented one. Either way, without the hours of practice, the talent will be wasted.

    Unfortunately, when it comes to writing I find that people think it’s an actually easy task. I had the not so pleasurable experience of editing a book by one such person. She was so excited about the book and she kept talking about Twilight and when I read her first chapter it was clear that she was an absolute rookie. Not only that, but the book was a FIRST draft. There was a lot of work to be done. She wanted to edit her entire book in two months and be ready to publish! I was very clear that there was a LOT of work to do and two months would not be enough (btw this was the two months right before her wedding). She thought it would be easy. The book was almost entirely in past tense, yet she insisted that it was present tense and wanted it in present. Then the run on pages of bodiless dialogue and non-described characters that had no substance and of course the entire book was told instead of shown. Oh boy! I think, this might be the kind of writer that teacher was facing. The kind who read only Twilight and expected to write a vampire book and become famous. I tried not to put her down, but part of me was insulted by her casual approach to her very bad book. It came to a point where I decided if she wasn’t willing to do the work I wasn’t putting my name on it. BTW, I sent this writer links to your editing blogs to help her not get discouraged. Eventually she realized she shouldn’t rush the writing right before her wedding and we changed the schedule, but the whole experience made me realize there is a misconception that writing a book is easy and that editing is limited to proofreading.

  • I actually agree with most of what he said, but it’s because he’s specifically writing about Creative Writing MFAs, not your normal writer-type. Many of his arguments were reasons why I left an MFA program and moved to an MA program.

    Most of the MFA students I met weren’t actively trying to jumpstart a writing career. They wanted to be Writers.

    So, when I started a creative nonfiction MFA, my first two classes were a writing workshop and an “elective” Romantic poetry course.

    In the writing workshop, I told the students that I wanted to up my game as a journalist so I could support my fantasy and science fiction writing habit. I was pretty much told “Nooooooooooooo! You don’t belong here! Writing for monetary gain isn’t what an artist does! Real writers don’t write science fiction and fantasy!!!!! We’re artists, and you’re not!!!”

    Oh, also, I was told that if I wrote fantasy and science fiction, that I should never bring it into a writing workshop because it was drivel and a waste of the other students’ time.

    In the writing workshop, I also discovered that many of the Creative Writing MFAs were workshopping the same chapters/poems/articles over and over and over again, so they wouldn’t have to take the time to write anything new. I ended up loving the poetry course so much more than the writing course that I switched from the MFA program to a British Literature MA.

    However, I still had to take classes with MFAs. They had to take a certain amount of literature courses to graduate from their program. Every time they took a literature course I was in, they complained about everything. How much they had to read. How much they had to write. The fact that they had to read Plato and Dante. How much of a fascist Plato was and how much of a narcissist Dante was. (And these were classes they’d specifically chosen as their “elective.”) Then they’d go to their MFA classes and “workshop” the same chapter from their book chronicling their drug experimentation or the article about working as a server at a steakhouse the same summer they had their first major breakup, the same article they’d written a year or so ago and were “refining” for a literary magazine.

    I ended up joining a writer’s group that meets at Barnes and Noble, where we talk about audience and publishing strategies and critique each other’s work and all respect the hard work we’ve been doing for the past few years, with no complaints that someone’s novel isn’t literary enough and they’re in the wrong place because they write about weretigers or weird west fantasy instead of the time they dropped LSD five years ago.

  • Wow, people, you sure are easily discouraged and even more easily impressed. You do realize that the whole fuss is about one stranger on the Internet telling you that you don’t have what it takes, then another telling you that you do, right? Why did you need their permission, again? If anything, the MFA guy should have spawned an army of authors who had no intention to write in their teens, haven’t read Moby Dick (guilty as charged over here), but now have a motivation to birth gems out of every orifice of their formerly talentless selves just to give him the finger. The proof of the pudding is not in reading a blog post extolling your presumed ability to look good in an apron. The Stranger didn’t knock you down, and Terrible Minds didn’t pull you up. All else being equal, you’re still where you were last week.

  • There was a lot of ‘tude in the original article that annoyed me. But not the “talent” part. People can improve their ability to express themselves in writing. They can learn technical tricks. They can gain a sense of their own strengths and weaknesses. There is a lot that can be learned, but yeah, some people are going to be naturally better at it than others. It’s not as simple as if you want it, and work hard, it will come. Georgia O’Keefe famously said, “I paint because I can’t sing.” I write because I can’t sing. Maybe if I had ear training and spent hours a day practicing when I was young, I might have “learned” to carry a tune, maybe. But like the man said to Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane, “Some people can sing and some people can’t.” Not everyone with talent will make it, and some people will squander or never develop their abilities, while others will make the most of what they have. But if it were only about hard work and developing skill, we’d all be able to do anything, and the hard truth is most of us can’t.

  • well, I started writing at 54. I’ve written 6 books. in the 4.5 to 5 star rating range. Am I rich? nope, but did I write? yep. Ageism is the ugliest and stupidest form of bigotry because eventually you become your own target.

  • I actually agree with some of the Words of Wisdom; I do think writing is a talent, like perfect pitch or the ability to throw a baseball accurately. People are more likely to seek a path that they already have an aptitude for. BUT: I had an ex-husband who was a magnificent guitarist, but too bone-lazy to go out and do anything with it. The world has never heard of him, never will now that he’s dead. Talent is less important than application.

    “Serious” reading? Yeah, I read Finnegan’s Wake once myself. Still wish I knew what the hell Joyce was smoking. I’d rather be a good storyteller than a “lit’rary success” because the true classics are those people still read after the author is dead and those are usually books that people enjoyed while the authors were still alive.

    Mark Twain is one of my writing heroes. And he didn’t have an MFA. He didn’t need one. An advanced degree doesn’t hurt a good writer (Robert B Parker, for instance) but too much self-consciousness can create work that’s so affected it’s just “look, Ma, I’m writing!”

    Knowing the rules of grammar, knowing how to use your tools in a way that communicates your intention – that’s important. Which makes me totally uninterested in advice from any self-appointed authority who uses “woodshed” as a verb.

  • And trust the advice of a seasoned pro over a teacher or fellow student or anyone in a group criticism session.
    The advice I keep reading from the pros – it doesn’t matter how good your book is, a bunch of people will hate it, some because they are jealous, and others because they genuinely didn’t like it. Many books that are agreed to be poorly written are loved by many.
    So don’t worry if it’s good enough or not, make it as good as you can and then try and get it published – either by sending in your manuscript or self publishing.

  • It’s interesting that no one touched Mr. Kinsella’s comment. I wonder if people did not realize who it was, or perhaps they knew or figured it out by clicking his name and kindly decided not to jump down that rabbit hole with the man. I’m curious to what brought him to the site to begin with. Given his comment, I would assume he’s not too familiar with the blog.

    • Good catch! I read his comment, but never connected him with Field of Dreams (Shoeless Joe.) His opinion makes me wonder if this view isn’t a product of both an era and certain academic culture.

      The important aspect of this conversation is that people who want to write are not discouraged from pursuing their own dreams.

  • It seems to me like he was just tired of his job because he wasn’t good at teaching. You have to love and respect your students to be good at teaching.

  • Right on!!!! I tried reading the ariticle but stopped half way through. Couldn’t take the bs. The author needs to find another career – one that makes him deal with people on a daily basis. The arrogance and narrow minded thinking was indicative of someone who’s humanity has been lost.

  • The guy sounded like an ass but then again, that’s what everyone on the ‘net does. I suppose we could go with the age-old nonsense that he’s “toughening you up” as a writer.

    Despite the tone, I found most of the points useful. I do think people naturally have talent for things and writing is no different. I think writing confuses the hell out of people because everyone figures they can put words on a page so they must be a writer. And maybe that is all being a writer is but for anyone trying to make a living at writing and not just teaching writing, you’d probably better hope that isn’t the case. I suppose for the teachers, that would be a good thing.

    Are there ways to tell the chosen ones from the rest? Not really. Art is pretty subjective. Not even having a “good book” as Chuck mentioned is a requirement for commercial success. The big pub marketing machine can repackage manure and sell it as fine chocolate and people will eat it up.

    With the digital self-pub craze anyone can publish with relatively little skill, training, or ability. Floodgates are open, gatekeepers sidestepped. Somebody needs to be out there to remind people that just because you can string a few words together doesn’t make you a writer. If someone ignores that noise and figures out how to do it anyway, well, they might just be one.

    Some might have been offended, but I found the article full of win in many ways.

  • Chuck, I think this may be my favourite blog post from you. Maybe ever. I read that guy’s article (actually, stopped halfway) and thought it was awful, discouraging, cold. thank you for writing this article.

  • I read the article and went – ???

    Two seconds later a tweet said ‘I’m following you’, so I looked at the dudes site and ended up here –

    http://www.virtualpitchfest.com/the-vpf-hotlist/blog/post/the-script-chef

    The first paragraph was oddly karma-like…

    ‘Like many writers, over the years I’ve worked at numerous jobs that had no apparent connection to writing. As a teacher, however, I’ve discovered that my best writers come from outside academia. They come with a deeper well of life experience from which they can draw characters and situations to enliven their stories. Just as importantly, they come with a discipline cultivated as a successful lawyer, priest, engineer, Navy officer, parent, or teacher — a discipline that now shapes their writing habits and process in a wholly productive way.’

  • Thank you, Chuck. I wasn’t buying in to a lot of what Boudinot had to say, but the article was posted to FB by an author who also does editing and cited as something they agree with. Bleah.
    I suspect it’s a sure sign of burn-out when you start actively discouraging others– in any endeavor.

  • This comes off like he just wants to discourage competition for his own writing.

    It’s also very telling that he completely ignores the fact that not everyone writes with a goal of publication. Sometimes, it just feels good to get the words out, whether you have a story you want to explore or whether you need to unload about your own life. I guess he thinks those writers don’t count.

    I’ll be 58 this Thursday, and I’m well past the point where I’d let anyone tell me whether I can or can’t write, especially if that someone is a frustrated pissant.

  • I think this guy is exactly the kind of guy I’ve avoided all of my life, the kind that abused me as a child. He has no compassion, but he is life all around us, fuck him. He can take his MFA (motherfuckinass) and the horse he rode in on, and shove it up his ass. We need to rid ourselves of this kind of person in our lives.

  • I’ve never been in an MFA course, but in college I took a class on the short story. It wasn’t a writing class, but a reading class. It was great, and really valuable for understanding what a story is, why the writer wanted to write it, how and why they worded things a certain way. I would recommend this kind of course, which anyone can sign up for at a local community college, to anyone over a workshop or a writing class because I think the need or desire to tell a specific story outweighs talent or age, and when you are trying to write something you feel is important you will find more motivation than if you just want to be a writer or want to write something that you think other people will find ‘cool’.

  • Preach it, Wendig!
    I had a few moments reading that article with my jaw dropped, followed by spurts of rage. And at the end, I too was just sad that there were impressionable students exposed to his toxicity. I hope he didn’t scare potential writers away from something that, not only brings my life joy, but that I have realized/adopted as part of my identity. I. am. writer.
    I especially found the “Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question, prove that they are not.” bit infuriating. I am one such person who asked myself if I was a “real writer,” and when you become a “real writer,” and what even IS a “real writer.” It was this very blog where I learned you’re a real writer when you write.
    I’m not published. And I aspire to be published. But I no longer think I’m an aspiring writer. And that’s what this toxic article could potentially be stealing away from would-be writers. Not to mention the great joy and self-realization and confidence that can come from committing passionately to creativity and honing your craft. He could be robbing people of the EXPERIENCE of writing. And that I find truly tragic.
    Not to mention that writing in a void non-sense. I can’t even tell you how much I value my writing group. The value is literally immeasurable.

  • What the hey is The Stranger? Can anyone publish there who is having an incoherent meltdown about his job? Why does so much that is put out as intelligensia sound like a five-year-old having a temper tantrum over an ice cream cone? And can we all agree that “so angry it’s like my urethra is filled with bees” is one of the best similes ever? Also possible a really great band name?

  • Well… I don’t agree with Ryan Boudinot, but I’m not convinced by this post either. I think my problem with both is that each of you make sweeping statements about what “really makes a writer” when neither of you have any real authority on the subject. I don’t mean to be insulting, but honestly no one knows what makes a great writer great. If you did, you would be the most successful acquisitions editor on the face of the planet. Whether great writing takes talent or hard work is a silly question–there are probably many examples that both sides are true.

    What I’d like to see is less of a focus on these either/or subjects (planning vs. writing freely; talent vs. toil; complex sentences vs. plain sentences; etc.) and more of a focus on trail and error. Even the most seasoned comedians have no idea what thoughts will be funny before they tell them in front of an audience. Even at the height of their careers, building a new hour is the same process–you write, you bomb, you edit, you bomb some more, keep a few things that worked, write some more, bomb some more, keep a few more pieces, edit them…

    The literary world isn’t immune to that. Every other type of creative person has to deal with trial and error: musicians jam, painters sketch, and it’s what open mics of all types are there for. It’s only a hunch, but I have the suspicion that if writers had an open mic “workout room” like comedians do, it would help for many reasons. And no, not workshops full of your friends.

  • It has always been my observation that those who wish to draw lines between who can and cannot be writers, authors or artists do so from a point of wistful jealousy.

  • Love you!!!!!

    I swear, going into an MBA program at 44 is not going to be deterred by someone with little life experience.

    Thank you for your article 🙂 I peed bees, too!
    The flames! MY FACE!

  • I wasn’t enraged by the original, though it’s disheartening to see it reposted as “good advice” by people who probably didn’t read it. The ageism alone is a reason no author should share it without comment. Your readers who might take interest see you AGREE that no one who didn’t want to be a writer as a teen should try later in life? How does that not come across as arrogant?

    Part of my work is reviewing manuscripts and I will say I’ve seen plenty from MFA grads who had appallingly poor skills. How can you get through an MFA program and not know how to present basic dialogue in a novel for example? Is that basically a refusal to read and learn the craft you claim you want to master?

    So I understand some of the frustration, but it’s not like this writer’s POV about the subject of “who gets to be a writer and who doesn’t” is new to me. That his recommended reading list to a student was all male – no surprise at all. That he has a vision in his head of what the Real Deal looks like and it probably looks a lot like he does – that came across loud and clear. His bitter, dismissive tone – even when his advice had merit – vividly reminded me of the one writing prof in college who discouraged most of the students.

    I don’t need advice from That Guy, and I hope that the burgeoning writers out there conclude that they really don’t either.

    Thanks for the humorous take and the validation that there’s more than That Guy’s way to be a writer.

  • I’m with you. (And YAY Madeline Kahn!) It makes me sad that people would follow his advice. It felt like his piece was borne of frustration with some people who assume that attaining an MFA will immediately make them excellent writers. That is correctly frustrating – you don’t necessarily have to be *born* with a talent, which I think is something that is up for debate anyway, but you should be deeply curious, hungry for anything and everything to do with the written word, whether yours or others. Intent doesn’t count for much when the final product in this article is coated in layers of bitterness and smug self-righteousness, rather than hard truths delivered with genuine compassion. And to hell with his definition of “serious” readership.

  • March 2, 2015 at 5:05 PM // Reply

    Thank you,that was wonderful. I can dance to that and enjoy every beat, flip, turn and swish of my hips. The difference between your article and ,’That Guy’s’? You offer something positive. I have suffered at the hands of teachers like that. Luckily I have continued to write and had great response to my short films,short stories and even short plays. There is never enough time to write. I work 5 days a week in an office and write on the bus going to and from work,I write in my lunch hour and on weekends . Still I complain about never having enough time.

  • Chuck — for people with a talent, things related to that talent come easily and naturally to them. So easily and so naturally, in fact, that it can be extremely difficult for them to recognise and understand that for most people, the same tasks are extremely difficult.

    You’re a talented guy. Read between the lines.

  • Absolutely scary this dude has (had) ANY influence over students of any age. Wonder how many dreams and visions he smashed along the way.

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