So there’s this article that’s been making some ripples in corners of the internet lately. It’s titled, “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One.” I posted it to my writer’s group recently and it got a range of responses, from the ambivalent to the negative.
Noted writer and blogger Chuck Wendig ripped the article a new asshole over on Terrible Minds, and he had a very different take on the whole thing than I did. Which is fine, I’m a great admirer of Mr. Wendig; in face he’s just “Chuck” in my writer’s group because we share so many of his posts around. And the fact that he saw the whole thing very differently than I did doesn’t mean that I disagree with him; quite the opposite. I think he made some great points, and some of the stuff he said I really agree with. I think it’s not just possible for two people to come away with different messages from one piece of writing, but indeed common, and beautiful.
In the first section of the MFA article, the writer asserts that you need talent to be a good writer. I actually agree with this… I believe that some people, for whatever reason, have a greater capacity toward creation, storytelling, and verbal expression than other people. All the evidence that I base that belief on is anecdotal, of course. My younger brother is a more than capable writer, he had to be to get through his degree and certification program. But he thinks that what I do when I write a book is some kind of incomprehensible magic. I don’t know what the difference is; I don’t know if it’s some part of the brain that just works better in me than it does in him. But there is a difference, and that difference is what we call “talent.”
Chuck addresses the talent portion here in greater depth, and I agree with a lot of what he says. I agree that in believing themselves somehow uniquely talented, writers can make themselves lazy and incompetent. Talent is only part of the equation; being good at writing requires work and practice, even when one has a natural inclination. I also agree that the concept of talent has been used to exclude minority voices and support elitist structures in probably every facet of the arts world. The problem with talent is also the problem with how we view the arts; there’s this idea that some people can do it and other people can’t. What other field do we see that in? Math and science, maybe? Nobody avoids going into accounting because they don’t have a talent for it, though. Nobody needs to exhibit a specific aptitude to learn any number of technical skills, and our failure to regard the arts (including writing) as a trade also leads to our demand that they be gods and martyrs.
The next section of the MFA article states that if you weren’t serious about writing by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it. I feel like I understand what the author is trying to say here, but I don’t know what “taking writing seriously” means, especially to a teenager. I started writing short fiction when I was around twelve, but I was such a fucked up teenager that the only thing that I can honestly say I took seriously was suicidal ideation. I get it, though, because you see all these forty-year-old rich white ladies who think they’re going to write the next great american novel, or an award winning memoir, and yeah, those people probably don’t have what it takes to make a living out of writing, and that’s okay. That’s probably not what they’re looking for.
The next few sections cover concepts that anyone who’s at all familiar with the indie landscape should already know… you need to make time to write; you need to read; memoirs are mostly terrible. I have some concern with the wording used in the third section, because wishing pain and abuse on the already abused was just not something that needed to be included to make the author’s point and was unnecessarily cruel.
The sixth point is that the author can’t help you get published, and that nobody knows what the hell is going on in the industry these days. This seems pretty spot on to me… the industry is changing. People are talking about content gluts and the ebook market stabilizing, but all that means is that the rate of change has slowed enough now that it’s no longer buffeting us. Yes, you can still get traditionally published, and yes, there are still some advantages to that. But you absolutely do not need an in with the industry to get published. In the last portion of this paragraph, the author encourages people to “to reject the old models and take over the production of their own and each other’s work as much as possible,” and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
Seventh paragraph states that it’s not important that people think you’re smart, and that’s true. This is not a thing you can do for ego gratification… you have to do it because you love it. Nobody gives a shit about you unless you give them good stories to read. The ego serves the art; the art doesn’t serve the ego.
And the final paragraph, which I thought was pretty weak to end on, personally, was about the importance of woodshedding, which is to say practicing. Yes. This is true. Practicing is important. It is possible to succeed with your first novel. I didn’t, I needed two novels practice before I produced anything I thought would be worth polishing.
Now I want to say right now that I do feel that the rhetoric used in the MFA article is hyperbolic and shitty. I think I overlooked that because I’m used to seeking out the inspiration hidden in the manure pile. I think I overlooked it because I, too, am a bit of an asshole. I’ll openly admit that the writers I want to spend time around aren’t the sort who wish they spent less time writing; they’re all the kind who wish they spent more time writing. Lord knows if I had a choice I’d write full time and attend classes and go to work when I could fit it in.
What I took away from the article was that this work isn’t for people with the money and resources to pursue an MFA. It is specifically for the people with the brains, the heart, and the sand to do the work. Not for people with fancy degrees. Not for people who insist that art serve their ego. And I found that to be an inspirational message.