Keeping It Real: On Boudinot & NaNoWriMo

A few years ago, I signed up for guitar lessons. To learn my way around an acoustic was something I’d wanted for pretty much my whole life. I showed up to class every Monday evening and dutifully practiced every day. I loved it. I was awful, I knew it, and I didn’t care. The day I was able to strum Cat Stevens’ Wild World without hesitating over chord changes was one of the most gleeful of my life.

 

But I quit those lessons after a couple months. The instructor. I think I was causing him actual physical pain. I was the only true beginner in a beginner’s class and everyone just blew right past me. So I shrugged, set the guitar aside, and decided that one day, I’d find someone who was interested in teaching someone like me—earnest, with short, stubby fingers.

 

Late February, the Seattle-based alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger printed a piece by author Ryan Boudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One, and the internet blew up, at least those bits writers pay attention to. Several brilliantly-worded rebuttals have been penned in the intervening days, and I’ll include links to a few of those at the end.

 

I could rant about Mr. Boudinot’s silly conjectures on the nature of talent, or the age one must begin writing in order to achieve “success”, or his revolting remark,“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.” (Yes. Yes, he did). Yet what upsets me most is the attitude of entitlement and exclusivity that pervades this piece, that the act of writing belongs only to the most gifted and Mr. Boudinot should not have had his time wasted by the hapless.

 

Mr. Boudinot does make some salient, if not terribly original, points: Writers must write a lot (and not make excuses why they cannot); they must read a lot; they must work very, very hard, and expect obscurity; they must write authentic prose; and the publishing industry is really different than it was several years ago. Boom. Now you know.

 

I trust most MFA faculty do what they should: instruct and guide, rather than smirk at and bemoan the talentless or anoint the rare “Real Deals”, as Mr. Boudinot refers to the handful of MFA students he taught over the years whose prose he could celebrate, rather than merely stomach. The profession of creative writing instruction is better for seeing the backside of Mr. Boudinot.

 

A few days after the Boudinot Debacle, another discussion unrolled in an online group of writers, this time about an interview with literary agent Chris Pariss-Lamb, The Art of Agenting, and his comment:

 

I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers. We don’t have a National Heart Surgery Month, do we? …  I would argue that it takes as much time and work to perfect their craft, in addition to having talent to begin with that most people just don’t. What I really object to is this notion behind these initiatives that anyone can write a novel, and that it’s just a matter of making the time to do it. That’s just not true.

 

Okay. Here’s the thing. I agree 100 percent with this statement. Except when I don’t. I have never participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—the November event that encourages people to pen 50,000 words of a rough draft from November 1-30—and can’t see that I ever will. But does that mean I find it insulting (assuming of course that I’m a “real writer”)? Does that mean I have the right to pass judgment on how others find and express their writing voice? Was Jimmy Page pissed off that I was butchering Peter, Paul and Mary because my feeble attempts belittled his years of practice? Did I actually think what I was doing was easy, just because I had a guitar? Seriously?

 

NaNoWriMo might have as much to do with writing a novel as the Runner’s World Run-a-Mile-a-Day-for-30-Days challenge has to do with training for a marathon, but that’s not the point. The point of NaNoWriMo is to commit to the act of writing, perhaps giving a story a chance to take purchase in one’s otherwise-distracted mind and busy life. It is a celebration of effort, a jubilation of creation.

 

Critics contend NaNoWriMo gives the impression that writing a novel is easy, if you can just crank out 1,667 words a day. Of course, no one understands what it takes to write a novel if they haven’t put in the years of writing and revising and collecting rejections (the latter being an integral part of the writing process), and if the amazing happens—the book deal—all the work of revising and promotion that follow. But the Special Snowflake approach to writing—that no one really understands how hard it is unless they are the Real Deal or a Real Writer—oh, get over yourself.

 

Someone commented that we don’t want/need more people writing novels. Fie on that. We want more people writing, painting, plucking out terrible renditions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow on a guitar. We want more people thinking creatively, telling stories, dreaming. It’s the rare few who take it all the way past dream and hobby to send their work into the world, fewer still who find their way past the gatekeepers and into the realms of a profession. The “Real Deals” are those who show up to the page, day in and day out, despite lousy teachers and naysayers, despite the competition. The “Real Deals” make room at the table for all. Even those lumbering in with guitar cases in hand.
 

“To hell with facts! We need stories!”
― Ken Kesey

This has nothing to do with my blog post. I just love it. Chartres Cathedral © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

12 thoughts on “Keeping It Real: On Boudinot & NaNoWriMo

  1. Thanks you for this post, Julie! Love the discussion: I can see this performance piece with video of your fingers trying to play acoustic guitar with additional audio of the comments woven throughout. At some point I will check out the links you provided at the close, but your piece is thoughtful enough for me. You know what I DO wonder, though? MFAs, MAs in all field must have folks in them who aren’t a natural fit, right? I mean I WISH that everyone who studies medicine really has the heart of a healer, but many do not. Is everyone who is enrolled in business school or engineering or education “The Real Deal”? Anyway, my feeling is that learning to write never stops and there are many recipes, cook times, and taste-buds for being able to call oneself a writer. I can’t wait to get your impression of The Art of Slow Writing. I really appreciate that book. Cheers!

    Like

    1. Leslie, thank you for the beautiful comments!

      You speak such truth in wondering about the rightness and fitness of people’s intentions and their hearts and abilities. It always comes in the DOING of the thing, doesn’t it?

      I feel a little wobbly saying this, but it is undoubtedly more difficult to obtain admission into a graduate music or visual arts program, than an MFA in creative writing–there is less gray area or subjectivity in assessing “talent” and probability of student’s preparation and success. Then again, the goals and expectations are different. One thing is for certain, if I do decide again to pursue an MFA, I will be asking many more questions and examining the faculty far more closely.

      I am LOVING the Art of Slow Writing. It’s taking me forever to get through (hah), because each chapter is so rich with information and possibility and inspiration. It will be the best writing book I read this year, I am certain!

      Warmest regards,

      Julie

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this post. I have an MFA, and I loved those three years – but I was 21 when I went in, and sometimes I think, Oh, what I could do with those three years now!!! Basically, I don’t think anyone should be snobs.

    Like

    1. #NoSnobs – let’s take it viral, Andria! 🙂 Thank you so much for reading- I’m sure you did your MFA at the right time for you- it’s brought you to the writer you are today. And 21, oh, I think I remember 21!

      Like

  3. You should read more of Wendig’s blog, Julie (sorry, realized I called you Christine above!). It’s hilarious, but also exceedingly rude. I only read it for laughs, as I can’t take anything he says serious, considering. But he is funny.

    I’ve had grads of the ASU MFA program apply to my workshop, and none have been able to write very well. And these are folks who have graduated. A member of my workshop who is a wonderful writer was recently turned down by the ASU MFA program – go figure. I sent that person a link to the post in question, and it made him feel much better. Unless we’re talking Iowa, it’s probably a waste of $$$.

    I stand corrected on the school. I read that post over a week ago, and couldn’t recall where he had taught. I honestly don’t understand why everyone is so up in arms about a college teacher speaking out about the lack of ability he witnessed. I see it more as folks trying to silence another person because they don’t like what he has to say. There’s a lot of that going around these days, and it bothers me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks again. I would be furious if I saw responses indicating Ryan should be silenced, but I think the debate is great, fascinating, and very worthy. I just don’t think it reflects well on him as a writer or writer-advocate, or on his program, which is a shame, because Goddard does very, very good work.

      I agree completely that MFA programs should be regarded critically, with circumspection, even. There are SO MANY, which has me thinking ‘cash cow’. But is it the fault of the student that she graduates ill-prepared? If her writing was sub-standard, then the admissions process is called into question, or the program’s goals, or expectations-it’s a very sticky wicket! Again, I don’t think it is the job of the MFA to create a writer, and if a student enters a program with that assumption, that is too bad for all involved, but it’s the admissions process which I believe bears the onus to clarify this.

      Talent is a moving target. Hard work, grit, and dedication are not. Lucky breaks in this business are so rare and what exactly is the measure of success? Sales? Critical acclaim? I think each writer has her goals and measures, and certainly those change over time, but real writers have to work, hard, every single day, regardless.

      Ironically, I would like to pursue an MFA because I would like to teach creative writing. I decided against going into debt for the degree to instead focus on actually writing and completing my novel. A gamble which has paid off so far, in the measure that I was signed by an agent and have a book contract, but we’ll see if anyone actually reads the damn thing 🙂 and I didn’t have to read Infinite Jest to get there! But now my interest in an MFA has changed-I would like to be the guide that I believe Ryan Boudinot could have chosen to be. Of course, I don’t need an MFA to do that, but credibility matters.

      I do love these discussion. I deliberately waited several days to compose my response because I didn’t want to knee-jerk a reaction, but obviously this touched a nerve in me!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your take on this was so different than mine, Christine.
    While I do agree that EVERYONE has the right to play an instrument, write any old thing their sweet little heart desires, run how ever far they can/want, bake cakes that fall and speak French with an atrocious accent – I totally got where this professor was coming from.

    Here’s why.

    The professor in question has every right to write about *his experience*. It’s his, and, for better or worse, he owns it. I read his piece as his direct experience of what a university MFA program (not a town rec center workshop – but a University MFA Program) is like: not everyone is a writer who wants to be. It does take years, and diligence, to get good at it. And many aspirants simply don’t have what it takes to get to that point: the talent, the ambition, the persistence, the support. Yet, he still read reams of their work for many years, and he still had to try and lead them, because that was his job.

    I thought too, that he was, in part, dissing the entire MFA thing. We tend to believe in our first world culture, that taking classes and acquiring a piece of very expensive paper will turn us into the thing we wish to become, when the reality is, only becoming that thing through many years of focused work will make it so.

    Lastly, I took his snarky humor as just that, snarky humor. He made me laugh. I didn’t take his comment (the one you included) as seriously as others seem to. I notice you included a link to Chuck Wendig’s wail of protest. Yet Chuck says things far more offensive and brutal all the time. I often laugh reading those things too, because I know he doesn’t really mean them – he’s just making readers laugh.

    It’s funny how differently people can take things. 🙂

    Like

    1. Cynthia,

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment. Of course, Ryan has the right to write about his experience. There is nothing in my blog post that suggests he does not have that right. And when one has an essay or an op-ed published in a newspaper, one must be prepared for everyone else’s right to have an opinion about it.

      You make a very good point: this isn’t a community center workshop, this is a college MFA (Goddard isn’t a university). Presumably, then, the instructor has a greater commitment to students he will be spending two years guiding and nurturing. If he truly is dissing the MFA process, then what was he doing accepting a salary from the program? Sorry, but that is exploitative of both his students and his employer.

      Of course, good writing takes years of dedicated study and work; again, nothing I wrote contradicts that. If someone enters an MFA program thinking they will emerge with a best-selling novel, time and the real world will disabuse them of that notion, fast. MFAs are not the be all and end all to developing writing skills. They are but an option, a possible step along the way. Writers pursue MFAs for many reasons, but I bet one reason that is common to all is the recognition that they have much to learn and are willing to trust a group of faculty and a cohort of students to provide structured guidance and feedback. MFA programs do have admissions policies and procedures- I know, because I’ve been admitted twice, and sadly could not afford the tuition- and if Ryan felt Goddard’s students weren’t up to his standards of good writing, again, he should have stepped down sooner.

      And yes, I guess we have different definitions of what’s funny. Mocking the child abuse experiences of his student is beyond my comprehension of what is funny. I don’t follow Chuck Wendig, so I can’t comment on his other writing. But I found his rebuttal spot on.

      If you’re saying that Ryan’s piece is snarky humor meant to get a laugh, then how can you say that Ryan’s essay of his direct experience as an MFA instructor has any serious value? You can’t have it both ways.

      Thanks again,

      Julie

      Like

  5. Julie– a good post, and thanks for the links to Valeri and Kapil’s articles (I knew about Chuck’s). To a certain extent I’ve been following this little dust-up, and the frightening part is that, in some portions of the blogosphere (particularly Google+), Boudinot’s article has been getting play as realistic and sober advice. It’s hard enough to write without having to filter through the sort of discouraging muck this guy is spewing. Thanks for calling it what it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Doug, thank you.

      The more I think about this, the more I wonder why Ryan didn’t address the administrators and faculty of MFA programs. My guitar lessons were meant for the absolute beginner; of course I sucked. A Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, on the other hand, presupposes an advanced facility with words, story structure and composition. If most would-be writers in MFA programs are that God-awful, that says a lot more about the nature of those programs and their the admissions process than the students. But he chose to mock the students, not the system. That’s what takes out of the realm of effective satire and just makes me embarrassed for the author.

      In innate ear and eye for words, a love of language and story are critical for good writing. But grit and resilience make real writers.

      Like

    1. What a compliment- thank you! I’m reading a wonderful book by Louise DeSalvo, The Art of Slow Writing, and just this evening read the chapter: Patience, Humility, Respect. Not a word about “talent,” with regards to the qualities writers need. “writing a practice rather than accomplishment.” I love that.

      From your piece (how wonderful to discover your blog), this: “Why else do teachers such as Will Self and Hanif Kureishi draw salaries teaching writing while simultaneously condemning the teaching of writing as a waste of time?” Yes! Teaching is a calling, as is writing. If you cannot do teach or write with patience, humility, and respect, then just stop, now.
      I’m so glad you commented!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Online writing tips .com Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.