Saturday, 7 March 2015

MFA - Creative Writing Teacher Quits - With A Few Choice Words

Hi Guys,
Recently you will have read since its all over the blogosphere, about Ryan Boudinot, a former teacher of creative writing in an MFA programme who quit and then decided to leave a few unfortunate comments.
And of course there have been a great many (outraged) responses to his blog, which seems to have become something of a storm magnet. This is my own response which I hope will be somewhat more balanced than many.
To begin with let me just say that teaching is a hard job. Ask anyone who's been in the profession. It wears down the soul. And so first I applaud Mr. Boudinot for having made this a career of his and having tried to teach. But I would also say that given the general tone of his blog, I think he may have been in the job too long. It strikes me as the sort of post someone would write who's a bit on the jaded side of things.
I would also say that as has been said many times, the most convincing sort of lie is the half truth. The lie that has a nugget of truth at its core. And most of his blog post reads like that. It is not that there is no truth in what he says. If there wasn't people could simply look at it, laugh, and walk away. It is that there is a nugget of truth in there which is expanded upon and then made into a great flat blanket claim.
And last let me just say that Mr. Boudinot's claims - at least the headlines - read as black and white. As absolute rules that must be adhered to. But the truth is that with creative writing as with most other human endeavours there is a huge grey area. There are no hard and fast rules. If you do this you will not necessarily succeed. And if you do that you will not necessarily fail. You will just make things either easier or harder for yourself.
Okay, over to the claims he makes.
1 Writers are born with talent.
Well this is absolutely true. Everyone is born with all sorts of talents for all sorts of things. Maths, rugby and writing to name but three. But no one (or at least almost no one) is born with so little talent that they will never be able to produce great creative writing. And equally no one is born with such great talent that they can simply write masterpieces without some study and hard work. Mr. Boudinot actually alludes to this once you get past the salacious headline.
2 If you haven't started writing seriously by the time you're a teenager you're probably not going to make it.
Again a half truth. Yes if you start writing seriously at a young age you have a better chance of succeeding. The same is true everywhere. Tiger Woods would have to be the world's best example of how valuable starting as a toddler practically and training from then on can be. But if you start later does that mean you're doomed to failure? No. Even Mr. Boudinot says "probably". The fact is that many great writers have started later in life. What those of us who do start later - like me - is that the journey for us will probably be harder. But if we're willing to put the hours and sweat in, there's no reason to assume that any of us can't make it.
3 If you aren't a serious reader don't expect anyone to read what you write.
Well this ones a complete pile of pooh. Yes reading is vital to becoming a good writer. But is there any evidence that what you read will make you a better or worse writer? No. What we do know is expressed in that mantra every writer is told almost from the start - Write what you know. So lets take two well known authors - Dame Barbara Cartland and Feodor Dostoyevsky. Do I know what either of them read as kids? No. But is it a fair bet that the first read romance and the second serious literature? Yes. And what does this tell us? That That Dame Barbara Cartland probably couldn't write serious literature (don't you just hate the sheer snobbishness of the term) and Feodor probably couldn't write light romantic fiction. But is either of them not read? No. The truth is that both of them are highly read and respected. What you read won't determine whether you'll be read in turn. What it will do is probably steer you in a certain direction writing wise, and that in turn will decide who reads you - not how many. But that's one of the great things about creative writing. There isn't just one thing you can write to be read.
4 No one cares about your problems if you're a shitty writer.
And here were return to the issue of burn out among teachers. (Note that I choose to see things this way rather than the unfortunate alternative which is that this is how Mr. Boudinot always felt.) What I read here is that Mr. Boudinot is saying don't come to me with your problems unless you have something great to bring with them. As I said at the start teaching is a hard profession. But one of the things that stands out for me when I think about the teachers I've had, is that the best of them were the ones who understood that I like everyone else had problems and were willing to listen and help.
5 You don't need my help to get published.
Well this one is actually completely true in this day of the internet and the indie.
Okay guys. That's my two cents worth on this unfortunate episode in the annals of creative writing. Now it's up to you to go and write and prove this guy wrong.
Cheers, Greg.