Thursday, March 5, 2015

Should you be in an MFA writing program?

Ryan Boudinot, who is identified as executive director of Seattle City of Literature and who identifies himself as a former instructor in a low-residency MFA program, has written a provocative piece titled "Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One." He lays out his argument with a number of flat statements, supporting each with a paragraph of prose. Examples of these statements include:

—Writers are born with talent.
—If you didn't decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you're probably not going to make it.
—If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
—If you aren't a serious reader, don't expect anyone to read what you write.
—No one cares about your problems if you're a shitty writer.
—You don't need my help to get published.
—It's not important that people think you're smart.
—It's important to woodshed. Which means that once you've graduated with your MFA, you still have to spend time—perhaps years—learning to find your own voice while you write unpublishable work.

Boudinot says that "the vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it." But, "Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one."

When I last looked at the Comments to the post, more than 200 people had weighed in, a good many of them rejecting Boudinot out of hand. An early writer said, "This article gives no consideration to students' feelings and no thoughtfulness about the courage it takes to undertake apprenticeship of an art form. Not to mention how the practice of writing transcends boundaries, fosters community, literally SAVES people's lives, and creates a deeper, more enriched individual which potentially can flower into a million ripples and collect momentum and influence in unexpected ways even beyond imagining." Inadvertently (in my opinion) making Boudinot's case.

While a number of people assumed he was a terrible teacher who hated teaching, I read the comments by two former students who said Boudinot was thoughtful, considerate, and helpful. And there are comments like this, "Thank you Ryan for writing THE TRUTH. MFA programs are filled with mostly talentless writers in the same tradition that so many people with unmanaged psychological problems are drawn towards a degree in psychology."

I feel lucky I do not have a dog in this fight. I have a Master of Arts, not a Master of Fine Arts. My MA from City College of New York required six literature courses, six workshop courses, ability to translate a second language (with a dictionary), and a substantial final project—a novel, a collection of short stories, or a collection of poetry I have taught creative writing, but only as a volunteer and only to prisoners and to middle school students.

Based on my life experience, however, I agree with Boudinot. Not everyone has talent, and you should not decide that writing novels would be a good retirement activity unless you have no interest in being read. People who complain about not having time to write make time for other activities; those are their priority.

I also think, based on many MFA-graduate works I've read, that too many such writers have nothing interesting to express. They have not lived long enough to have enough experience or to know enough about the world to say something interesting. It would be interesting to know how many MFA graduates are working writers five years after graduation.

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