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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INTRODUCING… “REVISE THE NOVEL MONTH”

Those of you who know me personally know that I just finished, along with thousands of writers across everywhere, National Poetry Month.  NPM came at a great time for me.  I was finishing my MFA, waiting to defend my novel thesis, and classes were winding down.  Poetry month helped me to make a daily commitment to my writing.   I wrote a poem every day.  I also did something else—I posted a (famous, not mine) poem every day on Facebook.  There is something about the second activity that I think reinforced the first: having a public way to manifest my celebration of this month helped to, in some way, hold me accountable for the private way I celebrated poetry month (writing poems—most of which no one will ever, ever see).

I like the idea of committing to something for a month.  It seems manageable.  That is why I decided to dedicate this entire month to my novel—I mean, like, serious dedication.  I have then decided that I need a public way to manifest the process, as a way of holding myself accountable to the work I do in private. Granted, this month may turn into years of work, but I plan to commit to it one month at a time. I have made a calendar of reading and writing assignments that will work as prompts to delve back into this writing project. That’s the private stuff, though.  I won’t be sharing much of that on here.

Here’s my particular deal: I have a novel draft.  I call it the “fun” draft.  I wrote it, basically, to make myself laugh while I finished my MFA.  And it is funny.  Probably only funny to me, but it cracks my shit up every time I read it.  This does not mean I don’t care deeply about my characters or the profound life stuff the novel aims to portray.  It just means that I wrote that draft to get a draft out and now it’s time to hunker down a bit.  I have three manuscripts covered with notes from my three committee members. Time to get serious. I actually have no real idea where to go next.

I also don’t have a job this month, so something as in-depth as working on a novel seems perfect for me at that time. Considering the amount of MFA programs there are in the world, I’m guessing that there are other people in my boat—people who don’t have jobs for the month of May, people who have novel manuscripts from their time in school to revise.

So here’s what I’m doing on this blog for the month of May:I will share my thoughts of encouragement during all of this daunting novel business. I encourage anyone who has a novel draft to revise to check in with this blog once in a while—maybe, just maybe (hopefully!), these thoughts will be helpful to you, too.

CURRENTLY READING:

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

The Nighttime Novelist by Joseph Bates

The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West 

should aspiring writers go to grad school?

If you have read my about page you can probably predict that I tend to answer this question with an enthusiastic yes.  Here’s why:

student writers have to write a lot

they have to read a lot

get to talk with someone about writing at least four times a week

meet established writers

go to readings all the time

get exposure (and perhaps funding) to go to writing conferences

get really good at reading other people’s work

if they teach or tutor, get really good at line editing and spotting errors

All of that said, I followed some advice coming out of undergrad that I should take some years off before applying to an MFA program.  I took four years; I spent two in Detroit and two in Bangkok.  This decision worked out really well for me because I was exposed to tons of communities in a short amount of time. I worked as a nanny, an actor, a musician, a research assistant, a tutor.  I stocked a department store, directed radio-performances for the blind with a cast of senior citizen actors, traveled to South Africa, India, Vietnam, and to every region in Thailand.  I picked up a lot of cool anecdotes on the way and I am curious about a lot more things than I was before I met all the people from those experiences.

In both of my graduate programs for creative writing, I’ve had friends and colleagues  who have come straight out of undergrad.  Some of them probably could have benefitted from exposure to life experiences outside of the academy but some are spectacular writers and write about cool stuff.  It really depends on the person.

In my experience, street-cred made me a more rounded writer, but school made me a better writer.  I think anyone can get tons of life experience and still be a terrible writer because, if they are anything like I was, they weren’t sure how to send their stuff out, what to read, who to talk to. There are ways to find this stuff out but, if they are anything like I was, will have a much harder time outside of academia.  Whatever the case may be, I have a hard time believing someone could go to graduate school, work hard (this is key), and come out at the same level they went in.

I will end this post by saying that I initially wanted to go to grad school so I could work in the academy and be a writer.  I’m more skeptical about this now–about my ability to land an academic job with an MFA.  The market for the writer academics who inspired me to write in the first place is totally different than the market will be for me.  I still don’t regret spending all this time in school.  Writing is the only thing I know I’ll be doing three years from now. Regardless of what I do–whether it’s getting more street cred or adjuncting or whatever, I’ll be able to write better than if I hadn’t been a student.