And what if said man was marooned on a desert island, seated atop the most comprehensive mound of the world’s literature, would he write the novel to end them all? Who would hear his pen fall?
I am writing this in response to an article written by Ryan Boudinot Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One. I do agree with the basis of some arguments that he presents. But, essentially, the article is rife with statements that contradict each other and the author.
As an educator, he has clearly failed. When your own personal belief is that “writers are born with talent”, this renders his position as a teacher of writing redundant. This mindset is disheartening, I’d imagine, for fee paying students and it does not instill faith in the education system. In my opinion, people entrusted to pass on knowledge, especially when they are arrogant fools, they can’t possibly do it properly or well. The system fails. But that’s a different post.
Having berated Boudinot’s teaching ability, I must admit that there is truth hidden amongst the arrogance. Writing, and doing it well, cannot be taught. It is akin to any artistic ability. Painters (I can’t draw to save my life and firmly believe that I can’t simply learn to either), musicians, sculptors, poets etc. These are talents for a reason. This is where our mutual agreement stops.
The individual writer must cultivate their own way to, well, be creative and express it in a way unique to themselves. A textbook method can’t blanket all creative writing students. I assume, from the way in which he degrades the existing talent of his former students, that Boudinot didn’t have the patience to help the majority to explore which method worked best for them.
I do agree that the pre-requisite of a writer, before she attempts to explore writing, is to have read as much as possible. Writers are influenced by other writers because you learn techniques of expression that are invaluable to your own work. Yes. But do not forget to absorb the lives around you not captured within classics of literature and, of course, your own experience. Art endeavours to reflect reality, accentuate the present and immortalise the past in hopes the future will learn. Writers have the ability and opportunity to interrogate and explore mysteries of the human condition. This can’t be done if she does not look outside herself for inspiration. But she cannot be inspired by what she does not find interesting.
It becomes clear in this article that Boudinot has his own opinion of what classifies as literature. The Great Gatsby being one. This isn’t a surprise. These opinions are also woven with a certain superior tone as they usually do. Fair enough if his students hadn’t read anything before, in which case he should have advised them to drop out of that course. I do love some of the classics, especially when a teacher inspired that love by the way they chose to teach it, and find them to be relevant today. The poetry of John Donne for example. It seems to me that Boudinot could not or would not teach the set list of literature in a way that would interest or inspire love for these books. That is a failing of the teacher, not the student. Whether the substance is understood or not is irrelevant. Demonstrating the way in which authors of these books achieved that substance through language and artful use of words should be the focus. Then, perhaps, they may learn to appreciate and value classical works. Showing rather than telling, I’m guessing, works wonders.
Boudinot, however, only demonstrates his own narcissism. He ‘teaches’ to feed his own ego and in attempting to teach, only profligates his own opinion at the expense of others. This is what I glean between the lines. Nothing personal. I generally avoid commenting on writing I have never read, but I will make an exception. From this article, and the almighty tone that presides over it, I gather that Boudinot has an inability to see beyond the scope of his own imagination. I have to then assume that I wouldn’t enjoy his writing as there would be no room for interpretation. So I ask, how was he able to effectively judge the work of his students? When very little of their writing clearly did not come close to be able to compare to his own? Judging for myself through this article, he would have marked work with the mindset, ‘how would I have written this?’. This leads me to believe that maybe the majority of his pupils were unfairly marked. Although this is a shame, Boudinot’s thoughts are compounded and void so they hopefully did not take his opinion on their work to heart.
Harsh words? Boudinot damns with a condescending tone so why can’t I if it can be supported with appropriate evidence of course. It is not hard as contradictions are abound.
“Put your ego on the back burner,” he writes. Was he able to do that in order to help his students achieve their goals? No is the simple answer. Because he then states that the work of his students should “entertain” him. Take some of his own advice perhaps? The reader should be a small part, if any, when thoughts of writing happen.
Writing is first and foremost an expression of the individual. This work will endure if the reader is able to see himself in those words. The human condition encourages inter-connectedness of all beings. An idea expressed by the individual has the power to inspire understanding in others. Writers, especially those just finding their ‘voice’, can’t focus on writing to please others. In fact, Boudinot mentions that you shouldn’t write “to look smart”. Contradiction, but I digress. She must trust that her own words will speak to the reader in a way they can interpret and discover meaning for themselves.
No man is an island. No writer can succeed alone. She has a lone gift that can unite the world around her.