To My Brothers and Sisters in the Not-Real-Deal Business

Today’s blog post is by writer William Bradley

But if you are a proud, searching “failure” in this society, and we can take ironic comfort that there are hundred of thousands of us, then it is smart and honorable to know what you attempted and why you are now vulnerable to the body blows of those who once saw you robed in the glow of your vision and now only see an unmade bed and a few unwashed cups on the bare wooden table of a gray day. — Seymour Krim

Much has been written already about Ryan Boudinot’s article in The Stranger, “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One.” The article is written as an insider’s revelation of the uncomfortable truths writing teachers dare not utter for fear of upsetting a lucrative status quo, and to be sure some people (or, to be precise, some of my Facebook friends) seemed to regard it as such. But many more, it seems (again, using the completely scientific sampling of my Facebook friends) found it rather boorish, perhaps even cruel, in Boudinot’s callous dismissal of “the vast majority” of his students’ efforts, and his claims that very few of the students he worked with in this low-residency MFA program were the “Real Deal.”

I don’t like to attack other writers online or in public. I used to do that, early in my career, and I’m deeply embarrassed by my own youthful arrogance these days. Good literary citizenship means supporting each other and promoting good work, not establishing our names by complaining about our fellow writers. However, this article has me rather frustrated.

I will say that, given his opinion that the majority of his creative writing students wasted his time, I agree with his decision to get out of teaching—it’s probably for the best for all involved. And I also agree when he says that you can’t be a serious writer without first being a serious reader. I might even go farther than he does and say that it’s not enough to know the “great works”—writers also need to be reading their contemporaries in literary magazines and journals in order to really know the field. I’ve known aspiring writers who couldn’t be bothered to read, and yeah, they were fooling themselves.

But I can’t get behind claims like “Writers are born with talent.” Everything in my experience—as both a writer and a teacher—tells me that this piece of conventional wisdom (which, I hasten to point out, is a cliché as old as the Muses) is wrong. Had I been born with talent, I don’t think it would have taken me three years of drafting, writing, revising, editing, submitting, crying, re-revising, re-submitting, etc. before I finally published that first essay. Of course, I’m probably not the Real Deal, but most of my writer friends—some of whom are very highly-regarded—could tell you similar stories.

I think writing is, largely, a skill one learns through voracious reading and practice. Now, I think there are some people who are naturally curious about the world and who want to use words to understand, explain, and interpret the world and its people. That, I think, is what motivates a lot of writers, and it’s the one thing that I can’t really teach students. But again, I don’t think anyone is born with the ability to write or craft compelling stories. I’m guessing that “talent” is what we mistakenly call habits instilled at a young age, habits that can often look like the creative impulse was somehow divinely-inspired or genetic in nature. For example, my father used to make up stories to entertain us, then– as we got older– he started reading to us. The Adventures of Robin Hood. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Tom Sawyer. Tortilla Flat. I wasn’t born a writer—to my shame, I wasn’t even born a talker– but I’m convinced that those early experiences of learning to respect and love storytelling and literature helped shape me into one.

I’m not sure I can agree with this, either: “If you’re able to continue writing while embracing the assumption that no one will ever read your work, it will reward you in ways you never imagined.” Well, maybe. And we shouldn’t write just to get praise (or Facebook “likes”), of course. But part of the reason I write is because I want someone else to engage with my ideas. Sure, not every idea needs to be let out into the world, but I’m not sure writing without any expectation of having an audience is really, well, writing– much like masturbating isn’t the same as having sex, to use a comparison I made in an essay published recently in The Essay Review. If you don’t think your ideas are worth sharing, why write them down in the first place, where they might be discovered? Why not just be content to amuse yourself with your deep thoughts?

Much has been written about Boudinot’s insensitivity towards those who write memoirs of child abuse and trauma, as he joked “having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.” I’ll admit, I flinched when I read that line too—not only because it was cruel towards, presumably, real people who had suffered real abuse, but because I could also see what he was trying to say, and it was painful to see him garble the message so badly. It is true, surviving abuse does not make one a writer, and having a traumatic situation does not necessarily mean that one has the skills to compose a compelling story. Had he said it like that, I think most of us would have to acknowledge the point. But instead, he decided to go with ill-advised dark comedy. He made the joke that some of us might make among close and trusted friends—the people with whom we play Cards Against Humanity, the people who know we wouldn’t really wish more abuse upon victims. It was a gambit, I think, designed to establish intimacy with the reader—a remark meant to be droll, maybe followed by a knowing wink. But instead, it winds up being the most alienating part of an already-alienating squib.

Far worse than the ill-advised attempt at dark humor, though, is this: “For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults.”

I’m sorry, but that’s just bullshit. And it’s the kind of bullshit student essayists and memoirists have been hearing for a long time. I taught creative nonfiction in an MFA program for two years, and I didn’t encounter a single narcissist. I think I have had a single student in my entire career who wrote nonfiction in an attempt to make himself look awesome (he was an undergrad, though). The majority were students who were genuinely committed to creating art out of their experiences and ideas. I directed three amazing MFA theses during that time, and I’m really proud of all three of those students for the amazing work they produced.

They were not, of course, the Real Deal, if I understand Boudinot’s use of the term to mean “born with talent.” I also do not believe that I am the Real Deal—it has taken me about a decade to finish writing my first book, after all. I am comforted somewhat, though, in my belief that most of you reading this would also be reluctant to describe yourselves as Real Deals—I’ve met very few people who were genuinely that arrogant. And I submit to you that, based on the backlash against an article that seemed designed to elicit smiles of familiarity from those “in the know” regarding creative writing programs, Ryan Boudinot is not the Real Deal either—the Real Deal, I suspect, wouldn’t have written (let alone published) such a flawed, divisive, and ultimately poorly-articulated article.

Perhaps Real Deals don’t actually exist? Perhaps those of us trying to get our voices heard through our writing are working hard, falling down, and picking ourselves back up again on a somewhat-regular basis? And maybe—and I know, it can be difficult to find common ground with people who seem really, really obnoxious—maybe, we can acknowledge that Ryan Boudinot is among our ranks?

I think it would be nice if Ryan Boudinot apologized for his article, even if he thinks he has been tragically misunderstood, because any misunderstanding must come, at least in part, from his failure to live up to his own standards when it comes to writing quality. I know some people have demanded an apology, even going so far as to suggest that he may not be the right person for his new job as the director of Seattle City of Literature. As irritated as I am by his article, I think those of us in the Not Real Deal Business ought to resist the urge to grab our (digital) pitchforks and torches or work to harm him personally. He wrote something that didn’t live up to his own ambitions for it—who among us hasn’t failed in such a way? Furthermore, his lousy article revealed its author to be one of us—that is, not the Real Deal. I suspect that for someone like Ryan Boudinot, that is probably punishment enough.

Bradley-WilliamWilliam Bradley’s creative and scholarly work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Utne Reader, The Bellevue Literary Review, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Passages North, College English, and Missouri Review.  He is a contributing editor/ pop culture columnist for The Normal School and an assistant editor at River Teeth, and he writes about essays for Utne Reader.  He lives in Canton, New York, where he teaches at St. Lawrence University. Visit him online at williambradleyessayist.com

The Real World of the Writing Life

Today’s blog post is by writer Q. Lindsey Barrett

The thing floating about the interwebs from a former writing teacher . . . ? Yeah, he makes a few valid points. Well I am a writing teacher and I say ignore him. This is what I have told my students about what they will need to do to sustain themselves as a writers in a world where this kind of virtual slap has become commonplace—You will need to create your own community of writers.

Here is the reality of the writing life:

The only thing that matters is the writing.

No reader buys a book or journal in order to tell the writer what they thought of the work. No one joins a critique group solely to offer feedback. Though many (many!) people write to create a record of their childhood trauma, not a single book buyer enters a bookstore (online or bricks-and-mortar) with the goal of finding a record of trauma in order to sympathize with the writer. If you want your writing to be read, your job as a writer, whether CNF or fiction, is to transcend your own life experience. Your life, ideas, skills, creativity are only vehicles for transporting the reader. Except for your mom, no one cares about the writer without first being moved by the writing.

The only thing that matters is the writing.

If you write for validation, for feedback, for grades, to get noticed, to be understood, or sadly, even to make a living, I urge you to seek another profession. When you send stories to journals, months, and sometimes years, will go by while you wait for a response, while you pray for at least feedback. You will not receive feedback; you may never get so much as a ‘no.’ That’s right, far too many journals never bother responding at all. Most agent queries are ignored. Publishers send their lowliest unpaid interns into the slush (unsolicited manuscripts) on the off chance one of them unearths a gem. Your chances of being struck by lightning are several times greater than the chances of getting a book contract. For every one of the tens of thousands of books published each year, the tiniest fraction earn the writer enough money to sustain her or him through the writing of the next one.

The only thing that matters is the writing.

To be a writer you must write because you want to. You must write because you need to. You cannot allow the lack of validation or praise or pay stop you. You must write because you are certain you have something worthwhile to say. You must constantly (constantly!) seek to improve your skills, because there isn’t a writer in the world who couldn’t write at least a little bit better. So get better. Find a better teacher if yours hasn’t the talent or motivation to teach you. I can say unequivocally I am a better writer as a result of my MFA program. Was it vocational education? No. Skill, desire, persistence, and determination are the only aspects of the writing life that are in your control. You write alone, you publish alone, and your reader will read what you wrote alone, without you ever knowing if your work touched, or amused, or frightened, or entertained them. You no doubt have noticed that the haters are many times more likely to publicly announce their hatred than the lovers are likely to announce they loved something.

The only thing that matters is the writing.

The value of a writing community of your own making cannot be overstated. Your family may love your work, but the world won’t care. Your family may be avid readers, educated and articulate, and still won’t have the objectivity to offer valuable feedback. Profit margins in the book biz are now so slim that editors no longer edit—they are all either ‘acquisition editors’ or ‘line editors’ (proofreaders). Writers are expected to get feedback from their peers (writers at about the same stage of development) on their own in order to get a manuscript ready for publication. Many traditional publishers (not self-publishing) expect the writer to pay to have their manuscript professionally edited before submitting it. (Of course, when self-publishing the writer must do, or pay for, all steps in the publishing process.) Agents do not take the time to say why they aren’t accepting your work or wanting to represent you—they either say ‘no’ or don’t respond to your query at all. Yes, there are exceptions, but the exceptions are more rare than you can possibly imagine. Someone once said that dancers are the only profession that requires more training, more years of toil, more ongoing effort for the smallest reward than writers. So why do they do it? Because they love to dance; they must dance. Do they love the endless practice, the lifelong classes, the blisters and bruises and broken bodies? I doubt it. They love the dancing.

The process of bleeding your soul onto a page isn’t fun or easy; the pay is miserable; the rejection disheartening. Love the writing. Love creating a world on the page. Love transcending life and transporting a reader you may never know. Love that marvelous community of writers who share your pain and passion and joy and sorrow.

Do I say all this to discourage you? No. I tell you all this because you need to know, you must know:

The only thing that matters is the writing.

You all have within you the seeds of a writing life, you all have potential—each of you who have chosen to read this. To be a writer you must commit to tilling and hoeing and watering and weeding before you’ll have a bountiful harvest of stories that the world wants to read, whether within or without an MFA program. You must create a community of like-minded writers. You must believe that, to you, the only thing that matters is the writing.

Thanks for reading ~

~ Q Lindsey Barrett

Q Lindsey BQ Lindsey Barrett is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountain and taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic. Visit her online at qlindseybarrett.com.