On That Article from that Former MFA Professor, from a Current MFA Student

I’m currently most of the way through my MLitt in Creative Writing. When that article from a former MFA professor circulated around, all I could think is: man, I feel really sorry for his former students. Also, I’m glad my professors aren’t like that, because otherwise I’d have quit.

There have been other responses. Chuck Wendig has a one, as does Foz Meadows.

The condescension drips from that article, and is basically a load of tosh. I’m an experienced writer (I guess?), so if I’d been in a class and heard a teacher come out with these sorts of things, I’d know to ignore them. Maybe if I was brave enough, I’d call them out on it.

For a new writer, just finding their voice and figuring out what they want to write and gathering the confidence to do it, this could be very toxic.

If your main hope is that most of your students come out of the MFA to become better readers rather than better writers? That’s a problem. You should want all your students to improve their writing. Otherwise, what are you teaching them?

An MFA student is probably paying a lot to pursue the course. My MFA is £3400, and that’s a lot cheaper than many places outside of Scotland. Then there’s the wages they’re losing by not-working or working part-time to devote the time to improving their craft. It’s a big investment. The least you can do is not write off most of them as doomed to be failures. Yes, not everyone who gets an MFA in creative writing goes on to become a published novelist, or poet, or screenwriter. They might not WANT to, and that’s fine, too. Not everyone coming into the course will necessarily have the same skill sets or experience. Some might not want to write the type of literature that the teacher adores. I don’t need to pay that much money for someone to look down on me. That doesn’t mean I expect my teachers to say all my writing is brilliant. I expect them to teach me new approaches, skills, and ways of looking at my craft.

I have done a bit of creative writing teaching, mostly for teenagers at school visits, but I’ve taught most age groups now. I would never, ever tell these students they’re awful. I would point out ways to improve, say it needs more work or a different approach. I would never tear a student down. If someone had done that to me at 16, maybe I wouldn’t have books out now.

Perhaps the reason he can dismiss his students so easily is because he thinks writers are born with talent. No. No no no. Sure, some people might be more predisposed to writing than others. Some might find it easier. Some might enjoy it more. Some might be able to write a publishable novel on the first go, and some might take a few practice novels first. But no one springs from the womb ready to write a perfect novel without doing any sort of work at their craft.

I’ve re-read the aborted novel I started when I was 16. Certain bits of it were actually okay. Most of it was unfocused. There were some nice turns of phrases, and a lot of clunky ones. I had no idea what I was doing with the plot. I had fairies and cat people, and no clear reason as to why or how they fit into the world, which was sketchily built at best. My characters weren’t particularly engaging. The first line, for crying out loud, was “the sunset was as red as blood.” Pretty cliche. Years went by. I read a lot. I wrote a lot. I got better.

If you put your hands up and say “well you either have it or you don’t” then you’re giving up on teaching them anything and you’re not taking responsibility for trying to.

If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

Really? Have you met teenagers? Do you remember being a teenager? Not a lot of us knew what we were doing. I certainly didn’t. I was just at a school visit last week and overheard a teen insisting earnestly to another boy that a condom could be used twice. As a teen, you’re learning about so many areas of your life and growing into the person who knows who they want to be and what they want to do.

As a teenager I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I saw it as a very far off goal. I was also thinking about other paths. I was pretty serious about drawing as a teenager, and not bad at it. If I’d focused my attention on art rather than writing, I might be doing that now. Maybe not.

And how many people are there who have sold their debuts in their 50s or older? Plenty. Does that mean they’ve “made it”? That’s such a vague phrase anyway–what does it even mean? For some, making it is finishing something. For others, it’s self-publishing a book to give to friends and family. Maybe they want to publish some short stories in magazines. To others, it’s selling a book to a traditional publisher for a small sum. Still others will only think they’ve made it when they made a million dollars and had a film deal. And even then they might not feel they’ve “made it.” The goalposts always change. It’s a meaningless phrase.

If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.

That I agree with, shockingly. Yes, you should write while doing your MFA, and devote the time to it. But his response is written with blanket statements. You do not know the circumstances of all your students or what they go through. Last week my dad was in hospital. I wasn’t able to write or finish my uni reading over the weekend. Not all of your students will be able to stop working entirely. For most of last semester, I was working 30 hours a week. Most students aren’t there to piss around. They also have busy lives that can sometimes get in the way.  Sometimes they might be afraid to write, and use time as an excuse.

Also, really, saying if someone asks if they’re a “real writer” they’re obviously not? I’ve written five books and I STILL ask myself if I’m a “real writer.” Every writer suffers from impostor syndrome. A lot of us are bundles of nerves. If you say your students are not “real” writers for having doubts, then you’re a shitty teacher.

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

Again, yes, you should read a lot if you want to write. It’s the best way to learn. But then he goes on to shame people’s reaching habits, saying you’re a Real Deal if you devour Great Literature as Judged by Him. I tried to read 2666. I like Roberto Bolaño’s shorter work, but the large tome was not for me. Reading The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe is just as challenging, if that’s your goal, but for me it was more rewarding. A lot of creative writing programs aren’t that keen on genres, being mildly tolerant to downright sneery of sci fi, fantasy, and crime. Those are all healthy areas of the bookstore. Those are all ways someone can make a living off their writing, and if they’re writing what they enjoy reading, it’ll show.

No matter what you want to write, reading across a bunch of genres will do you more favours than just reading one type of book.  Don’t shame people for reading books they enjoy. They’ll learn from whatever they read, and then maybe they’ll move onto other kinds of books. I’ll read “trashy” books sometimes. I don’t call them guilty pleasures anymore. I’ve nothing to be guilty about.

No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.

This whole response is really dismissive of child abuse and trauma. Foz Meadow’s response focuses really well on that. He really, actually said that some of his student’s writing makes them wish they’d suffered more abuse as a child. What in the world? That is an awful thing to say. Imagine someone who wrote about a very personal aspect of their life, and they see their professor wrote this load of tripe.

Even stepping aside from that bombshell–sometimes people write about things from their past, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I did it, early in my writing. I was writing what I knew. It was a good starting point. It was even therapeutic. Were the pieces incredible and moved everyone who read them to tears? No. And I was still learning my craft, so my prose was clunkier. Now my work has made people cry and laugh. But if someone had dismissed my early attempts, it would have set me back.

You don’t need my help to get published.

I really wish creative writing programs focused more on the business aspect of writing. It’s important to understand the business, how money and payment works, what you might expect from a first novel advance. Taxes! The admin side of writing takes up a lot of time (I just spent the morning wrangling my expenses. So exciting). An MFA isn’t a requirement to be published, obviously. But you’d hope by doing one you’d learn some skills that might give you an edge.

But even outside of the nitty gritty aspects, a professor should, ideally, understand the current publishing industry and be able to offer advice to students, should they ask. If a teacher doesn’t feel they know that much about the current state of the industry…maybe learn about it? It’s not that difficult, and it’s part of the job. It’s a huge task, trying to find a home for a piece of writing, and can be so overwhelming to someone just starting out.

Quote: “I find questions about working with agents and editors increasingly old-fashioned. Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening. My advice is for writers to reject the old models and take over the production of their own and each other’s work as much as possible.”

You’re advising all your students to self-publish? Eh? Plenty of people still want to go the traditional publishing route, and if so, you should know enough about it to at least point them to some resources. Pretty sure my agent and editors know plenty about the industry they work in, thank you very much. Self-publishing is another valid route to take, but they should know what both paths are like and what they can expect and if it’s right for them.

It’s not important that people think you’re smart.

Yeah, I agree with that. You don’t need to bash someone over the head and go “I’m clever! I’m clever!” with your writing. It can be wearying. A lot of early writers might try that, and a teacher can show them other options or challenge them to try something else. I agree with this, that you don’t need to show an ego to write, and that entertaining writing is a good goal to work towards. “The funny thing is, if you can put your ego on the back burner and focus on giving someone a wonderful reading experience, that’s the cleverest writing.” I agree with this.

It’s important to woodshed.

And then I disagree with this again. “I spent seven years writing work that no one has ever read.” Those 7 years would probably have been more fruitful if he’d shared his work with beta readers. I personally wouldn’t have wanted to delay my writing career by 7 years for…whatever reason. “That’s why I advise anyone serious about writing books to spend at least a few years keeping it secret.” Noooooo. Fine if you want to, but this makes it seem like writing is something to be ashamed of or that no one else can help you with it (even though they just spent a bunch of money hopefully getting help on their writing through an MFA). I enjoy sharing my writing with others. It’s why I write books in the first place. And I’m grateful for the people who read my earlier, uglier drafts. My friend Erica once told me, gently, that I should probably scrap this beginning of a draft of a novel and try a different approach. She was 100% right and I knew it, but hearing it from her helped give me the courage to do that, rather than spending a lot more time on a book that wasn’t working. How can you know if you’re writing something that entertains others if you never show it to them?

Nothing gets under my skin more than someone saying “THIS is definitively the right way to write.” Because for a lot of people, it really won’t be. People want to write different types of things. Just yesterday in class, our teacher asked us what our goals are. Some want to write novels, some poetry, some short stories. One person was interested in getting into screenwriting or documentaries. One writes but her main goal is to become an editor. She’s German, so she came here to develop her writing but also to improve her English so it’s easier to get a job when she’s back home, as many German publishing companies translate works originally in English. Another wants to get into teaching and translating. Some aren’t really sure what they want to focus on yet, but are interested in discovering that through writing more. Every one of my fellow students are worthwhile. None of them should be talked down to or dismissed. We’re all “Real Deals.” We’re there, wanting to learn.

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