Dispatches | March 11, 2015
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.
William 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
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