Ryan Boudinot’s piece disparaging his MFA writing students is tearing up the internet. But, I will go ahead and throw in my two cents. And I’m going to start where we all started.
I was once a writing student in a Master’s Program. I wrote autobiographical pieces about my so called miserable little life. I wrote bad poetry about sex and drinking. I read the wrong books and a lot of the right books. And my teachers patiently read my work and told me to keep writing. I don’t know if I had any talent. I had determination. I wanted to write and think about stories and write more. In the beginning, I wasn’t nearly as interested in getting published as I was in writing. I didn’t know about gaming and game keepers. I didn’t know about that there was a certain way that you had to behave, connections to be made, I was just in love with stories. I wasn’t a good writer when I was in graduate school. I don’t know why my teachers put up with me, but I’m glad they did. I’m glad for Benjamin Saltman, Peggy Shumaker, Rita Dove and Norman Dubie. They opened doors.
Most of my fellow graduate students have not gone on to become writers. They are doing other things with their lives, but for the most part, they are glad they went to school. Glad they got to swim around in stories. Lots of people go to cooking school and don’t become chefs. That doesn’t change the fact that we like process, we like learning, we like the experience of really getting down into an activity, getting gritty, asking ourselves how far we can go, that’s why we study.
Things I’ve studied include:
Horseback riding: 15 years
French: 8 years
Spanish: 4 years
Ballet: 4 years
I sound like a prep school kid, no, this was my cult life and college. I didn’t pursue any of these except the Spanish but I don’t regret it for a minute.
I also believe that your writing teachers can help you understand the publishing world. When you first start writing, you don’t know anything about how to get into print. If your professor is any good, they should know something about how to get published. Or they might just know someone else you could talk to. But they should know something.
This is the part of the piece that most people really take umbrage with,
“They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.”
Any way you slice it, that’s pretty nasty. There are people who have become writers partly because their childhood was a nightmare, and they walked through that nightmare by telling themselves stories and later those stories make you want to be a writer.
May we who teach at MFA programs live with grace, teach with grace, write with grace, and may our students tolerate our faults. It’s a big dance. Learn the tango.