A Response to Ryan Boudinot’s Unsurprising Frustration with MFA Programs

“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.”

– Ryan Soudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One  from The stranger.com

 

When I teach creative writing, my very first lesson consists of three rules:

1. Please yourself. Since you can’t control the future, nor can you make people like your work, you must first define for yourself what “success” means. Writing alone to make your mind soar is a perfectly acceptable definition of success.

2. Everything is negotiable. Rules and reader preferences change, and for every informed proclamation of what good writing is, there are a dozen writers who ignore it and sell books or win awards anyway.

3. Everyone has an opinion. And everyone will give it to you whether you ask for it or not. Never disregard an opinion out of hand or automatically assume an opinion is correct, regardless of the source. If it’s useful, keep it. If not, throw it out.

These rules can be revolutionary to my students, most of whom are spending their lives in prison. Every day their confinement presents them with rules they can’t break while their guilt reminds them of rules they shouldn’t have broken. But human creativity, by its very nature, breaks all rules and explodes all boundaries. It’s where we try out new ideas like interracial kisses and ask, “what if the ice caps melt?” This lack of certainty is why each day I put words in piles like these. Something might just catch on fire.

Into this open-minded attitude, let’s add a conversation I heard between a documentary filmmaking teacher and a prominent board member of an arts organization. The teacher was frustrated that few of her students ever completed any films and wanted advice about what to do. The board member, a wealthy business leader-type woman, asked how many students completed their films. Maybe 2 out of 10 said the teacher. “2 closers out of 10?” said the board member. “That seems about right to me.” By closer I think she meant people committed to doing a hard thing, regardless of the challenges, and that 80% of people lacking commitment matched her own experience in life. It also meant that she had a clear concept of what it meant to “close” or finish a task.

It’s this mix of uncertainty and commitment that makes me glad that Ryan Boudinot is no longer teaching MFA students. Boudinot’s essay laments how many people engage in writing without a full commitment or are attempting to exercise a limb that’s simply not there. He has a clear idea of what is worthwhile writing and what the proper motivation should be. While he is entitled to his opinions (see rule #3 above), he seems to be missing the uncertain point of all creative work.

We simply don’t know what will work today or exactly why what fails today might work tomorrow. We have no idea how a failed effort might go to seed in a student, resulting in a later bloom of work, or a passion for helping another writer soar. It’s sensible to me that 8 out of 10 new writers I work with will not currently look like my definition of a “successful writer.” This perception ignores the true work of creative writing–not to build professional entertainers, but to stretch minds and hearts around the new thoughts we need to thrive.

Teaching an uncertain craft to inexperienced students with unknown futures seems a bad match for someone with Boudinot’s concrete expectations. I hope he’s found another vocation.

A Response to Ryan Boudinot’s Unsurprising Frustration with MFA Programs

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