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:

IMG_9801

More Good News

1. The Indiana Review notified me that they are going to be publishing my story, “Come Go With Me,” after it won runner-up in their 2014 fiction contest.  I’ve been following that journal and submitting to them for years, so there’s lots of celebration going on around here about that.

2. My flash story, “The Last Attempt,” appears here in the 30th anniversary issue of Oxford Magazine (Oxmag) with some terrific writers, like David Ebenbach, Bret Anthony Johnston, and Michael Czyzniejewski. Woot.  The story is based a little bit on my dog, Woody, so here’s one of my favorite pictures of him for you to enjoy:

woodilocks“Woodilocks”

A Word to Novelists:

The great novels we get in the future are not going to be those that the public thinks it wants, or those that critics demand. They are going to be the kind of novels that interest the novelist. And the novels that interest the novelist are those that have not already been written. They are those that put the greatest demands on him, that require him to operate at the maximum of his intelligence and his talents, and to be true to the particularities of his own vocation.

~Flannery O’Connor, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction.”

Steve Almond Takes Us to Town

Most of the time, writing requires a lot of chugging along, and a lot of resistance towards hating other people.  Especially people who do well in the field.  It’s because we have this illusion that when other people get things, those things must have fallen in their laps without any effort.  Of course we know deep down this isn’t true (more likely, we resent the fact that we haven’t made the time to work as hard as other people), but this ridiculous idea translates into our own entitlement and prohibits us from enjoying other people’s work. Even when that work is really, really good.

In a recent article from Poets and Writers, Steve Almond tells the truth about how jaded we’ve become as writers.

He says,

…entitlement is the enemy of artistic progress, which requires patience and gratitude and, above all, humility. You don’t grow as a writer by writing off other people’s efforts. You grow as a writer by respecting the process.

The more we write, the more we understand how hard that process actually is. The more we write, the harder it is to write.  It’s so easy to get discouraged, and discouragement makes it hard to appreciate what other people are writing.

(I’m speaking for myself, anyway.)

Let’s just acknowledge that we’re discouraged and try not to take it out on other people.

Grace and peace to you, other hardworking writers…

Oil for the Writing Lamp

I’ve been listening to and enjoying a lot of New Yorker fiction podcasts lately. If you aren’t familiar with them, they work like this: an author who was published in the New Yorker at some point reads and discusses another author’s story, which was also published in the New Yorker at some point. Editor Deborah Treisman conducts wonderful interviews at the end of the stories. Most run about 30 minutes, which makes them great for dog walks or housework, or short commutes.  For me, these have been a post-MFA staple.

I’m sharing this one, where Jennifer Egan reads Mary Gaitskill’s story, “The Other Place,” because I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m a big fan of Egan, ever since she came to Tallahassee and I heard her discuss her writing process, which was to write out the entire novel by hand on legal pads and then craft it while she typed it up. I’ve tried this. It doesn’t work for me at all, but I love the idea. Listening to her, though, makes the writing life seem “possible,” and that is always refreshing.

The story she reads forces the reader into dark and ugly spaces (surprise! if you are familiar with Gaitskill at all…), but it does so with a wild amount of understanding and compassion.  Let me use the word “masterful” when I describe this story.  And Egan’s insights are smart.

Here are some other stories/discussions I love:

Boyle Reading Barthelme

Erdich reading Oates

Oates reading Ozick

Short Story Breakdown

I made this when I was teaching students how to approach reading in a literature class that focused on the short story.

I am not usually a visual person, but more of an audio learner (charts make me queasy). That said, the essence of this “map” is that it starts by looking at the story in the broadest sense and moves down to the narrower, more detailed aspects of the story.    It moves from genre to structure to language.

By posting it here, I suppose I am asking what it leaves out.  Should a discussion-based literature course examine a story in a more encompassing and maybe effective way?

This is how I tend to read.  How do you read? How do you teach your students to read?

SHORT STORY BREAKDOWN

Simpsons, Sedaris, and Story Structure

I am one of the thousands of people who enjoys David Sedaris’s essays.  I have followed him since The Santaland Diaries, and think he is a great example of how to be deceptively simple.  He makes writing, particularly funny writing, look so easy.  Also, my students [usually] love it when I assign him.

I was excited to see that today, he (or his personal Facebook assistant) posted an interview from by Jenn McKee of Ann Arbor’s local online magazine, MLive.  I’m familiar with MLive (and McKee) because I went to college in Ann Arbor and later performed in at least one play she reviewed.  Anyway, all of this is to say that I was super excited to stumble upon this quote:

Q. While reading “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls,” I was reminded of the way your essays often start in one experience or memory, but then they end up going someplace completely unexpected. Does that association between seemingly disparate experiences just happen when you sit down to write about a topic?

A. I was listening to “This American Life” over the weekend, and on Ira’s show, they really cut to the chase. The first story was … someone saying, “This guy stabbed me when I was 18.” They get right into it. When I’m sitting down to write a story, it doesn’t occur to me to begin the story like that. For one thing – I like “The Simpsons.” Unlike most sitcoms, where you think, I bet this is the one where wife loses her wedding ring, or the husband loses his job. With “The Simpsons” – you watch the first 4-5 minutes, and you have no idea where the show is going. I like that.

I was excited because I am always using the Simpsons as a teaching example when I cover story structure.  No seriously, every time I teach a class.  But I never heard anyone else allude to its structure this way. Made my week.

 

Or the Whale

mobydickIt is not a coincidence that I finished Moby Dick (FINALLY) on a day when I began my day reaching for my phone and reading this. (I don’t recommend reaching for the phone while still in bed, by the way, but it’s just how this day began). I read that Daily Beast article and thought, Melville.

I am not really a Dave Ramsey person (I have reasons), but many of my friends are and his ideas have done them good, as far as they witness.  I am not even sure there is any truth to this Daily Beast article, but the idea behind the story, like the idea I read behind Moby Dick, is just true, yo.

Never have I come across a book that drew such strong reactions from people. “You’re reading Moby Dick? My sister had to read that and she said it was torture,” was, in its essence, a common response when people realized what I was reading. Though I’d attempted to read it about four times, two of those times making it past the first 100 pages but then losing interest as soon as Melville started to describe the ship, I only just made it all the way through. It took me five months.*

I started it after I had to teach “Bartleby the Scrivener” to a literature class for college sophomores. I knew that the story was in some way a response to Melville’s experience with Moby Dick. I loved that story so much—its language, its mantra (“I’d prefer not to…” how true so much of the time!)—that I thought, okay, I’d better read Moby Dick now.

Again, I read this book slowly. Each chapter was like reading philosophy, not only because there is a ton of philosophy on its pages, but because the language is thick. I am not going to say I don’t understand it when people say they hate this book. It was the most difficult book I’ve ever read and the idea that high schools would assign it as summer reading material is just super crazy. But I will say that it’s sad to hear people say that they hate it, because this book is amazing. And important.

Not only is it difficult because of the language, which, at times, resembles Shakespeare in its depth and beauty; it’s difficult because of what it reveals about the impact of imperial power upon humans.

(The ship! The hearse! The second hearse!” cried Ahab from the boat; “its wood could only be American!”)

I am amazed at how well the book diagnoses the sickness of wealth and power; some call it “worldly ambition.” Of COURSE it would be unpopular; it brings the hardest truth about humanity into light: that this kind of (monomaniacal) power corrupts.   It is a sickness that all artists (and non-artists, like Dave Ramsey) battle all of the time. We want our work to bring us recognition, fame, glory—all the things that I believe Moby Dick represents. This empirical (significantly white) whale is what filmmakers call the MacGuffin. If we just have that thing, then all of our problems will go away (that book publication, that good review, that tour, that Pulitzer). Of course someone who reveals this uncomfortable truth in such a masterpiece would die poor and unpopular. Of course.

(“Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief.”)

As a writer, I often ask myself if it would be better to write like Melville or to be famous and loved but forgotten? Is it better to produce the masterpiece and live poorly? Is it better to have little light while living but to leave the world (in book form) a light that will never go out?

Regardless, Moby Dick demands a reevaluation of how we live and decide what is important. Why do we want what we want? Does this thirst overpower our ability to interact with others, to acknowledge other people at all? Reading Moby Dick is a complex journey into our own darkness.