Via an amie on Twitter, we read of Ryan Boudinot’s “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now that I No Longer Teach in One.” More accurately, this would be called “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Students Now that I No Longer Teach Them,” and implicitly he offers excellent advice to anyone contemplating an advanced degree of just about any kind. To wit:
If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
I went to a low-residency MFA program and, years later, taught at a low-residency MFA program. “Low-residency” basically means I met with my students two weeks out of the year and spent the rest of the semester critiquing their work by mail. My experience tells me this: Students who ask a lot of questions about time management, blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are should just give up and do something else. Their complaints are an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student. On a related note: Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question, prove that they are not.
(Portions bolded in blue are highlighted by Historiann.) Right on! Either you have time to devote to professional training and development, or you don’t. If you don’t, then wait until you have the time to prioritize your education. (And please, for the love of God don’t take out loans for an education you can’t prioritize!) Sadly, universities (like mine!) are encouraging the fantasy that college or graduate school are things you can do in your jammies at home on your own time while also raising a family and holding down a full-time day job, and presumably getting the laundry done, keeping everyone fed and kitted out, and staying physically fit. (Good luck with that!)
However, a degree like that, however honestly and earnestly pursued, is not the equal of a degree pursued as your number one priority. Life is long, and graduate school is short, so make the time you spend there really count.
Here’s another bon mot that seems specific to MFA students, but is in fact useful for grad students and scholars everywhere:
If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
Without exception, my best students were the ones who read the hardest books I could assign and asked for more. One student, having finished his assigned books early, asked me to assign him three big novels for the period between semesters.Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity’s Rainbow, I told him, almost as a joke. He read all three and submitted an extra-credit essay, too. That guy was the Real Deal.
Conversely, I’ve had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or—without a trace of embarrassment—say they weren’t into “the classics” as if “the classics” was some single, aesthetically consistent genre. Students who claimed to enjoy “all sorts” of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduate student!), told me she preferred to read books “that don’t make me work so hard to understand the words.” I almost quit my job on the spot.
HA-ha. Once again: don’t waste our time if you’re not serious. Complaining about being assigned intellectual work in graduate school is an excellent way to establish your unseriousness. Finally,
No one cares about your problems if you’re a $hitty writer.
I worked with a number of students writing memoirs. One of my Real Deal students wrote a memoir that actually made me cry. He was a rare exception. For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.
It’s got to be incredibly difficult to have your autobiographical writing critiqued. But shouldn’t people pursing a graduate degree in writing pretty well get it that there’s the life you lived and then there’s the representation of that life on the page, and they are not the same thing? My comments on your writing don’t mean I don’t like or respect you. (I may not like you, but you are not your writing.)
Boudinot’s essay has lots of other advice that’s more specific to MFA students. For example, his first and second admonitions are “Writers are born with talent” and “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.” I don’t think we can say the same for other fields of study–although the string theorists and anthropologists among us who started developing their knowledge and skills in these fields in high school undoubtedly have a great advantage over the rest of us, who maybe didn’t even know that these fields even existed until college.
I always liked history in grade and high school, but it never seemed to answer the questions I had about the past, so I decided to “go ahead” on my own, Davy Crockett-style. And I had my opinions about some of the books I was assigned in college and grad school, but I never would have dreamed to complain to a professor that they were too difficult, even when they were! Because I soon discovered that the fault wasn’t theirs, it was mine due to my own immaturity and solipsism.
Live and learn. Don’t overshare! Read books that are difficult or challenging. See what happens. Mazel tov.