Blackboard
Type
Polemic
Category
Writing

Passing creative muster

Until recently, Ryan Boudinot taught in Goddard College’s Master of Fine Arts program. A couple of days ago, a piece he wrote about similar writing courses started to gain traction. Several parts of it sat uncomfortably with me. Maybe I ought to make a disclaimer: I’ve never been enrolled in an MFA program. It’s partly a financial decision – I can’t afford it – but it’s also a question of whether it’s for me. I did study professional writing at TAFE. I loved the structured workshops. I loved the classrooms. I loved my teachers. Reading Boudinot’s article, I wondered if I’d just been really lucky.

Boudinot believes ‘writers are born with talent’, and describes the ‘exceedingly rare’ MFA student who is sufficiently gifted to be deemed ‘the Real Deal’. Much of his piece pivots around this nebulous character. One of his ‘Real Deal’ students ‘wrote a memoir that actually made me cry’. Another read ‘the hardest books I could assign [and] submitted an extra-credit essay’. Beyond that, the criteria are murky.

Since I’m not really sure what constitutes ‘the Real Deal’ – and I’m not sure Boudinot does either – it’s hard to understand who’s qualified to bestow this title on a pupil. In writing school, I sat in three years’ worth of novel classes. Some of my peers went on to have their manuscripts published. Some of them are still redrafting their work. Some abandoned their projects. There were YA writers, crime writers and Richard Ford-style minimalists. Some students were prolific; others (like me) were painstakingly slow. I didn’t care for everybody’s writing, and I’m sure plenty of people didn’t care for mine. There was a lot of talent and hard work. But looking back, I have no idea who, if any of us, could be considered ‘the Real Deal’ – or if such a thing exists.

In any case, I don’t think it’s up to a teacher to decide who passes creative muster. Of course, in the context of an MFA, work has to be graded. As subjective as all art may be, it needs to fit on to the bell curve at the end of semester. This is the shitty part of academia. We know about it when we enrol. But that’s not what Boudinot’s talking about.

He can number his Real Deal students ‘on one hand, with fingers to spare’.

He was teaching at graduate level for eight years.

This makes me wonder if he was paying attention.

 

‘If you aren’t a serious reader,’ warns Boudinot, ‘don’t expect anyone to read what you write.’

Yes, I’m thinking. This is advice I can get behind, because I believe it: to be a good writer, you need to read broadly. But hang on – is that what he means? He goes on to namecheck Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow and The Great Gatsby among the books he assigned to students, sneering at a woman who, as a graduate student, was reading the latter for the first time. Here’s where it gets iffy, because now Boudinot’s starting to seem like an intellectual snob with a frankly myopic and Western-centric view on what counts as ‘serious’ literature.

A confession: I only read Gatsby the month before the film came out in 2013, and, even then, I was pretty lukewarm on it. Other serious books I haven’t read: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I’m sure they’re wonderful, and terribly serious. Maybe one day I’ll get around to them. But I learned plenty from NoViolet Bulawayo’s staggering We Need New Names and Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light. I’m still learning all the time, and constantly trying to refine my skills as a writer, but I don’t feel silly or intellectually impoverished choosing Grace Paley over Thomas Pynchon.

I wish Boudinot had said ‘If you don’t read voraciously, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.’

If I’m ever standing in front of a classroom of writers, that’s what I’ll say.

 

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the article was that outside of the rare and effulgent Real Deal student, Boudinot was largely bored by his pupils and their work. No-one’s saying teaching is easy, or that every classroom hums with Dead Poets Society-levels of passion. But an educator’s job is not simply to cater to what they perceive as the highest common intellectual denominator.

Boudinot writes:

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. My hope for them was that they would become better readers.

The MFA students aren’t there (at least, not principally) to become better readers. They’re not forking out tens of thousands of dollars in tuition for a bloke at the front of the classroom to throw F Scott Fitz at them. Enrolling in graduate study entails commitment – financial, temporal and psychological. The students are there to improve their creative writing skills. If you’re their teacher, that’s why you’re there, too.

‘And then there were students,’ laments Boudinot, ‘whose work was so awful that it literally put me to sleep.’ I’ve sat through classes and workshops of awful writing. But awful writing gets better when the teacher is able to offer encouragement, constructive feedback and suggestions for improvement. In my experience, and without exception, students in an engaging, supportive environment will always follow suit, which means the bar is raised for both work and feedback.

 

A couple of years ago I took a masterclass with Christos Tsiolkas. He was humble and generous as a teacher, and he said something that’s always stuck in my skull – ‘Writing is a constant apprenticeship.’ He was leaning against a whiteboard, spreading his big, capable hands. He was smiling balefully: sorry I don’t have all the answers, mate. Few things have ever reassured me more, both as a student and writer.

I don’t know how much I believe in talent, but I put a lot of stock in hard work. Both inside and outside the classroom, you’re only ‘the Real Deal’ if you’re plugging away.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jennifer Down is a writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, Overland and Kill Your Darlings. Her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, will be published by Text in 2016.

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Comments

  1. Thankyou for that. You reinforce my resolve to stay out of writing classes.
    War n Peace is a good yarn tho.

  2. Nice response – Boudinot’s article says more about him than MFA creative writing students & when it comes to snidey bitterness, he’s the Real Deal.

  3. Great and generous piece and I too, am an aspiring writer who is quite poorly read when it comes to the usual recommended writerly bores i.e. white men. It’s funny how many creative writing teachers say much of the same thing – then don’t teach!

  4. Prime perspective, Jennifer. I reckon I was at the same masterclass and I remember two things Christos Tsiolkas said; readwritereadwritereadwrite and we can’t all be genius, we have to find our own modest place…happy writing…

    • Hi Anita, I just love your words ‘we can’t all be genius, we have to find our own modest place’ – thinking I could never be one of the greats kept me from taking my writing seriously in my twenties – it only occurred to me in my late 30s that it was still okay to offer up my writing even if I did not amount to a master/genius. I’d like to quote you and credit you – is that okay with you and other than crediting your name to the quote should I give a description of you in some way, writer, novelist…?

  5. Yes. Look. I wouldn’t take too seriously the opinions of so-called creative writing teachers like Ryan Boudinot. He’s all about having read certain books, but you know, one could get by without having read a word of his own publications (from what I’ve read of his books on Amazon.com, they are woeful). Ryan Boudinot is someone who has done a creative writing course, published a book out of it, and then has gained a position teaching creative writing where he tells people what is great and what is not. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. To be a writer you have to learn to trust yourself, your own instincts, and mine tell me that people like him are a waste of our precious writerly time.

  6. But isn’t Boudinot just getting his name out there by writing opinion pieces like this, and stirring up the crowd? Not all that different from everyone here, just trying to get their names out there, staking claims in cyberspace?

  7. Most of what you learn in writing courses is freely available in some good books on writing, or on the web, without having to endure interminable workshop sessions, class presentations, and other ‘busy work’ while the teachers try to find time to mark.
    In my experience, courses are chock-full of ‘rules’ about writing that homogenise impressionable writers trying to find their voice.
    ‘Voice’ is what counts – not slavishly following three-act structure, dialogue attribution or other requirements.
    I suspect the author of this article already had a good sense of hers before she started her course. Others are not so confident and end up trying to constantly please an audience of their peers, rather than producing something from the heart.

  8. At the risk of sounding trivial (not that I worry about that sort of thing too much) what is the inexplicable grasshopper next to the man’s awful trousers in the photo doing?

    Five hundred words please, written from the grasshopper’s pov.

    • Well, I am and am not a real grasshopper, inasmuch as I’m a microchip in the form of a grasshopper when I’m not a real grasshopper in the Lacanian sense, if that makes any sense. I double also as a chalkboard eraser which Greg occasionally uses to throw at students if they nod off, or talk over him rudely, or any other extraneous shit unrelated to the O, ever so complicated math dialogue taking place in the tutorial room. Some student has just asked this fantastic Greg whether math is fundamental to the structure of the universe, and he is replying that it depends on which day you ask the question. (You see, Greg’s in love with the student who is asking the question (as you can tell from the look on his face) so of course Greg believes math not to be fundamental at this very moment, although he is saying it is because I am whispering in his ear that it is and, I AM THE ONE IN CONTROL.) So my rather menial, and if I may say so, somewhat degrading role in this scene in situ which you are witnessing is to send signals to a concealed speaker in my Massa’s ear, either to correct something stupid Greg has just said, tell him stuff he should but doesn’t know, supply additional information, or maybe rap something out of his mouth to make him look cool and amuse the students (a great teaching tool) or alert him whenever his private part starts acting erratically, whereby I zap him with my de-humidifier ray as I am doing at this second. Down boy!
      We all know that one day, in the not too distant future (see, I’m programmed for human cliché’s as well – I’m equipped with all the party tricks, for sure) … Excuse me, Massa’s in trouble … No Greg, that never happened … it’s a myth as you should know, if you’re any sort of scientist … NASA didn’t spend millions of dollars developing a pen which would write in space, whereas the Soviet Cosmonauts used a pencil … you’ll make a fool of yourself if you repeat that furphy, and you won’t impress Georgie either, in fact it’ll be a turn off and you’ll have to find another student to flirt with … Sorry about that – if I were human I’d find it degrading to be corrected all the time by a grasshopper, but he doesn’t seem to mind … Hit ‘em with this rap now Greg: ready, get your mouth moving boy … Well I’m de man dat gets da numbers down, puts da figures up, controls dis stuff … come on, shimmy, boy … Boy, o, boy, what a lackluster slack Massa I control …
      I diverge. Anyway, by way of ending, we all know that one day you will all be grasshoppers … (cough, cough) … correction, humans … with microchips in your heads and this learning – writing game will not pass creative muster.

  9. I should declare my hand here – I am the Communications Manager for Faber Writing Academy but I also am an aspiring novelist and after years of not wanting to be taught how to do creative writing and learning by myself I did the 6 month evening course Writing a Novel with James Bradley last year(his novel Clade has just got rave reviews). I felt that I reached a ceiling with working on my own that I couldn’t get beyond and the course has shifted that and I’m writing much more powerfully now. It’s given me a grounding in novel writing craft skills which I agree could be found in books but I might have been less engaged and learnt less well that way – however the big win was it made me reflect intensely on my work, get used to exposing it and having it (constructively) criticised by the tutor and the other students. I’m tougher, more informed and a better writer as a result.

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