People Talking About MFA Programs

Late last night some women in my program and I stayed up talking about an article on thestranger.com (a Seattle-based publication) titled “Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One” written by a guy named Ryan Boudinot. We were all annoyed.

UPDATE: And this post over at the MFA Years is wonderfully reassuring and definitely worth a read.

This response by poet Jaimie Gusman pretty much sums up my reaction to Boudinot’s article. She reduces his piece to this:

First sentence: Ryan Boudinot, an obviously white male professor who taught at the graduate level for eight astounding years, tells you how much his students, with the exception of  the”Real Deal students” he could count “on one hand, with fingers to spare,” bored him almost to the point of quitting his job.

Second sentence: According to Boudinot, in order to be a “Real Deal” writer, you must be a young and nimble, white, male that will have read The Great Gatsby and other canonical books way before graduate school, like, in a 5th grade private school English class or in a high school AP English course.

Then there was this tweet:

But the best response, I think, comes from writer and teacher Laura Valeri titled “Those Who Teach, Can.” Valeri goes paragraph by paragraph and demonstrates that Boudinot is blaming students for his inability to effectively teach.

Boudinot wrote, “On a related note: Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question, prove that they are not.”

Valeri’s reply:

Do you mean to say you never asked for confirmation? Never in your life? Do you mean to say you couldn’t find the time to sit with a student and ask her to consider why she wants to write? What matters to her? Have you never told her how many of us can never find satisfaction in external confirmation? That we can win awards, be published in the best of journals, and, like Salinger, like Capote, never really feel like we’ve accomplished anything? Why do students have to know this inherently when they come to you?  Can you not explain that the challenge is within oneself? Isn’t it that for you?

This I appreciated most of all.

The tension between artist and art is a necessary tension. We improve by trying and failing to accomplish perfection. Our goals get more ambitious the longer we do this. And the pressure and drive comes from within, which means external validation does so little to reassure us.

If you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity I think it’s clear that being a “real” writer is one of my concerns. I’m constantly questioning my status as MFA candidate, as fiction writer, as artist. I’ve thought about quitting. I’ve thought about it ever since I started taking it seriously. I’ve thought about giving up writing, I considered not attending the program, I’ve considered dropping out of the program.

But stampeding elephants couldn’t stop me. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve gone to stampedes and said, “Hey! You elephants! Come here a second and help me have a regular life without so much self doubt and internal struggle over my passion!” And they tried as hard as they could but it didn’t work. At the end of the day (or beginning, or middle) I still sit down and write and write and write.

“Giovanni Antonio Guardi (attr) Elefant” Attributed to Giovanni Antonio Guardi
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5 thoughts on “People Talking About MFA Programs

  1. I did not study under Ryan Boudinot, but as a graduate of the MFA program whose students Boudinot so thoroughly slammed, I can tell you that he had the apparently well-deserved reputation of selecting a few (male) students to champion who were cut of the same “cool” cloth as he. He neglected a large number of his students, not bothering to teach, guide, or challenge them, let alone give any well-considered or valuable feedback on their writing. He told some of my friends (whose manuscripts he admittedly didn’t “get”) that they were not cut out for the writing life, or that they were probably choosing failure if they continued to write. These friends were mostly women, including a sensitive, talented “chick lit” writer who will surely become successful if she can recover her confidence from a terrible semester with Boudinot. His article has her doubting herself all over again, as she was certainly not one of his “Real Deal” students. Shame on you, Ryan. Now that I’ve seen what damage you continue to do, I am SO glad that you’re gone.

    http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/03/01/an-open-letter-to-that-ex-mfa-creative-writing-teacher-dude/

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    • I think all the support everyone’s been giving each other is a pretty great response in itself. There’s always going to be miserable people trying to bring everyone down in the arts, we just gotta leave them to their sad little corners and keeping doing what we do.

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