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.
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.