What Boudinot Got Right about Teaching Writing

If you have friends on social media who are writers, writing teachers, or writing students, then you probably came across this article by ex-MFA instructor, Ryan Boudinot, about his frustrations with writing students. Examples include: they don’t read enough, they complain about not having enough time, they don’t have anything interesting to write about. He also starts off the article saying, “Writers are born with talent. Either you have the propensity for creative talent or you don’t,” which is about as effective as starting off with “there’s gotta be life on other planets,” or “the Beatles will forever be greatest band of all time.”  I mean: cool if you want to believe that but actually, nobody cares if you do because you can’t prove it.

I feel the same way about his second statement: “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.” Um. Not helpful.

While I, like most of the people who commented, am relieved that Boudinot is no longer teaching (for example, read this thorough rebuttal from Laura Valeri), he did write one thing that has stuck with me since I read the commentary a few days ago:

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

After eight years of teaching at the graduate level, I grew increasingly intolerant of writing designed to make the writer look smart, clever, or edgy. I know this work when I see it; I’ve written a fair amount of it myself. But writing that’s motivated by the desire to give the reader a pleasurable experience really is best. I told a few students over the years that their only job was to keep me entertained, and the ones who got it started to enjoy themselves, and the work got better. Those who didn’t get it were stuck on the notion that their writing was a tool designed to procure my validation. The funny thing is, if you can put your ego on the back burner and focus on giving someone a wonderful reading experience, that’s the cleverest writing.

If he’d only written that, I would have told everyone to read that article as the best writing advice I’ve encountered in a long time.

That said, I’m not 100% what Boudinot means by “entertain.” You don’t want to just write the first act of Into the Woods, you want to write the second act, too–the one that challenges your reader.  I would add the words “and challenge” to Boudinot’s “entertain.”  You want to write what will help enhance the reader’s experience in the world, even if it means giving them a good kick in the rear end with what happens to your characters. (See: The Wire.)

Never mind about when you started writing, or whether or not you have talent. These are things that don’t actually matter.  What matters is the doing of the thing.  The practice. Write about what obsesses you, entertains and fascinates you*, challenges you, convicts you, pisses you off, and makes you cry or laugh or both at the drop of a hat.  If you write for validation or anything else besides the chance to make connections between the people, ideas, and things you care most about, you are cheating yourself out of the Life (capital L) that the writing practice has to offer you.

But Boudinot is so right when he says: don’t write to make yourself look smart.  If you are writing because being a writer makes other people think you are smart, you are cheating yourself.

Write because you want to share something with your readers that will somehow enhance their lives.

*For instance, this blueberry flavored popcorn I spotted at a movie theater in Bangkok really fascinates and entertains me:

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