What to say about an MFA

Wow. The MFA shit really hit the fan the past week or so. First, ex-instructor Ryan Boudinot  cuts loose on his I hate  rant. Commence comments, like the one by  Chuck Wendig – one of many around the blogosphere.banned

Why am I weighing in? I have not taken one creative writing class. And one of the reasons I’m on the fence about pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing is getting an instructor from the “you-suck-so-you’re-wasting-my-time” house of pedagogues. If I’m not the Real Deal, I’m wasting his time?

From reading the essay, I believe Boudinot did not have the vocation to be a teacher. Writing is a vocation. Teaching is a vocation. Writers who have no business teaching master’s level classes could be the topic of another post. This is what I want to know – what does some of his former students have to say about his article?

As for Boudinot, I would think that waiting to find The Real Deal and dissing the rest must have been a terrible way to make a living, much less spend one’s time. But the complaints: If someone didn’t start thinking about writing until a 20-something or later, forget it? Don’t have time to write? Not a serious reader? Dissing memoir writings for working out a ‘shitty life’ in a composition? C’mon. Anyone who decides to sit in front of a classroom of students, masters level or not, who do or do not have a writing background, surely must expect that half the class isn’t going to be up to the mark when it comes to writing anything worthwhile, much less publishable. Living for the Real Deal?

I’ve always been interested in storytelling, but my reading and writing as a teen consisted of newspapers, magazines, mysteries, and high school required reading. Serious? Not serious? Who knows? Not have time to write? No one has enough time to write, certainly not anyone holding down a job and raising a family. I can’t imagine doing that, throwing an MFA course on top of that, and having enough time to think. So a student tells that to an instructor. I would expect every student in an MFA course, low-residency or not, to utter those words at least once. And about this ‘wish you had suffered more” memoir rant. Maybe it’s a good think Boudinot left the business.

Full discloure: I’m trained as a journalist. I studied music for years. I use both disciplines whenever I try to write something. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I have been writing and editing news stories, features, and manuscripts for over 30 years. I have never been published in any publication other than a byline story in a newspaper or magazine. That means: none of my creative output has been selected, agented, edited, or published by anyone, from the local arts quarterly to a Big 5 publisher. And I’m O.K. with that.

I know not everyone is not cut out to be a teacher, the same as not everyone is cut out to be a reporter or a novelist or any other type of writer. But it takes patient, tactful people who know how to deliver the bad news when the time comes to tell the pupil they don’t have it what it takes.

My real concern lies in MFA programs and the instructors: I wonder how many feel the same way as Boudinot but do nothing about it. Show of hands? I’d like to know.


2 thoughts on “What to say about an MFA

  1. There’s a saying that goes something like, “You go to college to learn to write and afterwards you learn to write in spite of college.” That’s not exactly right, but it’s the general idea. And I’ve found it to be somewhat true. College courses, by necessity, are one size fits all structures. As you say, at least half of the class won’t be cut out for the writing gig. (I would say the number is much higher.) But that’s up to the student to ultimately decide, not the teacher. Their job is to impart knowledge, hopefully gained through experience. What the student does with that information is up to them.

  2. I read the Ryan Boudinot article you provided a link to, Joe. Well, that’s a few minutes of my life I won’t get back. For the most part, I think Boudinot is right. But there are several ironies therein. HIs unoriginal, profanity-laced observations are reflective of that sector of the American culture that has been sinking and continues to sink. This is the stuff of too much best selling pop music and literature in recent times. Boudinot has tapped into that lowest common denominator and now, making good money spewing out this stuff, he feels empowered to unleash his arrogance and mean-spiritedness on, well, whomever.
    In more gentle terms…
    As an undergraduate, I took a number of writing workshops. This was at a fairly good university. My observations regarding writing students align with Boudinot’s. Many students lacked the self-discipline and creative and intellectual energy necessary to produce even the modest amount of work assigned in those workshops. Probably only 20% of a typical class routinely engaged in the disciplined, rigorous reading that is foundational to quality writing. Of that 20% – among those serious, thoughtful readers – only a tiny percentage were deeply, passionately driven to write. If nothing else, those classes illustrated the chasm between those students who merely liked to read and had a vague, unformed notion that they might also like to become a writer and the very few students who Loved language, who loved to read, who read critically and who were passionate about writing.
    As might be guessed, there’s the other side to this coin: the teachers in these classes. It’s a given, I think, that anyone making a living writing is not going to be found in a classroom. So these programs hire teachers for whom a writing career didn’t quite work out, or isn’t working out. Some teachers are comfortable with their status as writers who didn’t quite make it, others are frustrated. Either way, it is Rare to encounter a writing teacher who is passionate about teaching writing. Once they get the lay of the land in these programs – students routinely neglecting deadlines, students inconsistently dribbling in minuscule quantities of unimaginative, poorly edited work – most teachers slide into a comfort zone where that work ethic toward writing becomes the accepted norm in their classes. The one, or two, or three students who meet deadlines with polished work are better advised foregoing these classes, networking with similarly driven writers, and spending their time writing and seeking publication.
    My belief is that anyone with the financial resources and time to pursue an MFA would be far better off taking a few classes that emphasize critical reading in literature, biology or the social sciences. JD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s