What makes for a good MFA student makes for a good grad student too.

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 Jest2666, 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.

17 thoughts on “What makes for a good MFA student makes for a good grad student too.

  1. All I have to say is yes. Yes. Yes.

    And holy hell, the number of young writers I have dealt with who tell me they don’t have *time* to write; or, even worse, they don’t have time to read.

    One of the first questions I ask my students, or used to ask them before I couldn’t take it anymore, is, “Who do you read? Who are your favorite writers?”

    I got too scarred by having my young writers tell me, “Oh, well, I don’t really have time to read,” or even worse, “I don’t really like to read.”

    Imagine asking a young musician what music she likes and having her tell you, “Oh, I don’t really have time to listen to music,” or “I don’t actually like to listen to music.”

    How do you think you can write it if you don’t read it?

    How can you write it if you don’t *love* to read it?


  2. On a related note, I’ve discovered that one of the deep reasons to write my book (now that I’ve got tenure) is that *I want to read the damn thing.*

    This was what was blocking me on book #2 for the longest time: the book as I envisioned it wasn’t even compelling to me. But once a compelling approach clicked into place — one that I could imagine myself getting jazzed about as a reader — I suddenly found my motivation again.

    FWIW, I’ve had a passion for my *discipline* (History) since I was in middle school. My interest in writing, however, is a relatively recent thing.


  3. Can we apply this to BA students too? Especially the parts about reading, making time to write, and not trying to work 40 hours a week while trying to complete your degree?

    [Over-sharing seems to be a developmental thing for 18-22 year-olds. I’m willing to give them a break on this. Adolescence ends late in America and I’m fine with that. But over-sharing when you are 35 is bullshit.]


  4. I abs. think it’s imperative for undergrads to focus on their studies if full-time. If you can’t, then go part time. One of my strongest students at Baa Ram U. was a student who took 6 or 7 years to go through college while working at Home Depot, taking 2-3 classes per semester (which still seems like a heavy load on top of a 35-hr/week job.)

    But she did it, and then got a Master’s degree in History, and is now a HS history teacher.


  5. I was utterly indifferent to history for years and years, although I was immersed in history as a child. (American history, though, which is not My Thing TM.) It wasn’t until I took a random elective in British history, three years into my university studies, that I saw the light. In the next two years, I completed all of the requirements for my history degree with a straight A record. In the final year, I worked full-time (because year five of a four-year degree, ouch!) and went to school full-time. When you’re hooked, you’re willing to work hard for the degree.

    That’s what is important. I don’t care how “talented” you are. I care about the work you’re doing. I get a number of students who think that they’re just so smart that they don’t need to work (especially that they don’t need to revise). The students who’re passionate AND hard-working blow the self-confident but unenthusiastic students out of the water, time and time again.


  6. “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.”

    That’s kind of harsh (yet hilarious).

    Not sure about being “born” a writer, but I do agree that there’s a critical period for learning to construct a decent sentence that probably closes around the end of high school. I edit a fuckeloade of writing by my trainees, mostly grants and manuscripts, and those who can write a decent English sentence I can train to craft good paragraphs and combine them into extended narratives. Those that can’t already craft at least a plausible English sentence are almost all irredeemable. Interestingly, this doesn’t correlate at all with being a native English speaker, and some of my best writers have been from non-English countries.


  7. You don’t have to be born a writer, and you don’t actually have to start writing or learn to write as a kid. I’ve had more than one student come into the program relatively late in life — in their thirties or forties; even one guy in his fifties.

    But you do have to read a lot and write a lot to learn to be a writer — he’s got that part right.


  8. One of the cleverest students I’ve ever had was a Chinese graduate student in accounting who took my Economic Anthropology course (I’m not really sure what wormhole he emerged from and have wished more such cosmic surprises would leap out of it). His writing was good. He got the definitive vs. indefinite article wrong a lot, as non-native writers tend to do, but otherwise he wrote very well. One piece of advice I often give poor writers who are native speakers of English is to read their own essays aloud — when I ask them to read a sentence or paragraph in front of me, they immediately hear poor and nonsensical construction. Like everyone else has said, this correlates closely to not being much of a reader. They know spoken English well; written English is a nodding acquaintance. We all have read essays where the students has sort of put some words down on the paper in hope that they might crawl toward one another in something resembling the right order. It’s often too late to make them into enthusiastic readers, so “read your own work aloud” is my triage advice. Happily, it does seem to help a little.


  9. A modified version of this would have been a helpful tool to use to assess graduate students i/nearn my cohort. After year 1, it was pretty clear who wanted to hack it and who did not, yet faculty were averse to dropping anyone from the program. But people who whine whine whine about how hard it is to read lots of books or sob about getting critical feedback (I mean, no one likes it, but those who are hardy enough to acknowledge that can move forward rather than get stuck on the fact that their writing/argument has flaws) or just can’t seem to produce a seminar paper in a timely fashion need a kick in the pants or a kick out of the program. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and resources to string them along. Sounds harsh, but I think it would improve programs to winnow out those who don’t actually want to do the work.


  10. Please read the piece below and reconsider. There’s more here than meets the eye. Boudinot does little more in this piece than out himself as a terrible teacher with an ego the size of Montana. Real teachers understand what the job entails–and that hating your students and snarking on them is not the way to accomplish any sort of teaching whatsoever.


    Also, please be aware that a low-residency MFA is generally the choice of people who need, or want, to continue their full-time work while they’re in school. Belittling people who want to better their writing skills enough to decide to work AND study full-time, at the same time, is rather small. Time management under those circumstances can be tough. Refusing to help your students figure out how to make it work and then blaming them for having trouble juggling their schedules is just churlish.

    I’m also a bit surprised, given the crux of this blog, that no one here has noticed the way all of Boudinot’s “Real Deal” writers are white, privileged males, like himself, and the writers he disdains are women.


  11. Annabelle: I hear you. I never say anything if it’s not positive about my students, and I don’t link to anyone else who does. I take the trust in the student-teacher relationship seriously. However, please note that the title of Boudinot’s piece specifically references the etiquette of not dissing one’s students (“Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now that I No Longer Teach in One.”)

    I assumed that a lot of Boudinot’s experiences were due to the fact that he taught in a low-residency program, although I didn’t make that the angle of this post. I tried to turn Boudinot’s comments into positive advice for others (as in, work hard, don’t complain about the work, and read and write a lot) rather than criticism of specific students (as in, “can you believe a grad student complained about how much she had to read?”), because I think his experiences might be useful for students contemplating grad school.


  12. I got an MFA in creative writing before getting a PhD, so Boudinot’s piece provoked a number of responses:

    1 The don’t-do-it-if-you-don’t-have-time part points to the problem with Low-Residency MFA programs. One of the reasons I went to a (residential) MFA program was for the protected writing time. And I was explicitly advised by mentors that the protected time was the central point. You get an MFA (in ascending order of importance) to get some feedback on your work, to have classmates who become your first readers and critics and spurs to growth, and to have time to focus on your writing.

    I don’t know how it works in low-residency programs; I have no experience of them and will not speak ill of them. But such programs do away with the thing I consider the most valuable part of the experience.

    2. The writers-are-born-not-made is Boudinot’s BS, a confession that he has no idea of how to help a student develop or grow. But it’s not just on Boudinot; this sentiment is alarmingly common, and reflects a continuing under-emphasis on creative writing pedagogy. There are MFA faculty who are gifted and thoughtful teachers, but there are others as well. And there is not yet a strong, widespread disciplinary emphasis on pedagogy.

    3. The my-students-won’t-read-Fitzgerald thing comes from a set of mutual misunderstandings about what an MFA program is and what an MFA is for, misunderstandings that I fear some schools foster.

    An MFA is typically oriented toward toward building a rich set of writing tools, with a typical emphasis on artistic prose. (Most MFA programs, because of their structure are better at teaching skills on the micro rather than the macro level; this only increases the focus on prose style.) This is true no matter whether the student writes in “literary” or popular genres; a crime novelist with an MFA will usually write MFA prose.

    A student finds The Great Gatsby difficult has no love of literary prose, and no desire to write such prose. That student wants to write books in serviceable and unchallenging prose; such books do get published in great profusion. (This is true whether the student wants to write in a popular genre, like SF or romance, or a “literary” genre like the memoir or realist novel.)

    That student wants a much more vocational program, focused on publishing the easy-to-read books found at the front of the bookstore. That is a perfectly reasonable desire that most MFA programs are not really set up for. But some MFA programs are marketed as learn-to-get-published! vocational courses, which is what a Gatsby-hating student is really looking for, when most MFA programs are learn-to-write-artful-prose programs. Naturally, there will be mutual incomprehension and conflict when that happens.


  13. Thanks, Dr. Cleveland–your comments are really insightful, as always. I understand much better now the differences between low-residency and trad. MFAs. (I had no idea the low-residency programs existed, although these kinds of grad programs exist now for almost every other field of study, so why should I be surprised?)

    The protected writing time you mention seems really important for all writers, though, not just traditional MFAs interested in cultivating literary prose. I think it’s difficult to learn to write if you’re not writing! It’s like that idea that was going around blogs a few years ago to “pay yourself first,” as in, do your writing first thing in the morning or otherwise prioritize your writing time and make the rest of your life fit around it.

    A friend of mine is part of a faculty writing support group organized at her university, and her observation about this experience is pretty depressing. Her takeaway is that “people don’t change because they don’t want to change.” They’re a part of this writing group, but they are spending their time doing everything BUT writing, and then using the group as a forum to complain that they can’t get any writing done–the opposite point of this workshop!

    I hear you about Boudinot’s claim that writers are born, not made. I didn’t highlight that point for a reason, although there are scholars (and historians) who think that’s the case. I’m much more of a positivist and a democrat (small d) to go along with a hereditary or royalist sentiment that privileges birthright over hard work.


  14. Thanks, H’Ann! (And BTW, I’m coming to your sabbatical institution weekend after next. Would love to see you.)

    I hear you about the “writing group” that becomes the not-writing support group. At its worst, that becomes support for continuing not to write.

    I should be fair to low-residency MFAs. The brief periods of travel to the granting institution are apparently periods of intense contact; small, exhilarating doses of getting away from normal life and focusing on one’s writing. And low-residency students get faculty feedback, and deadlines, both of which are useful.

    But I worry about people who seek out an MFA program because they’re trying to get credentialed. The MFA is only the barest of credentials: not always necessary and never, in itself, sufficient. And students who are looking to MFA programs in the hope of making contacts with agents and publishers (which does not work out often enough to be a reason to get the degree), should know that in the absolute best-case scenario, your professor will connect you with her OWN network: her agent, her publisher. If you’re not interested in the kind of work that professor does herself, her contacts will not be interested in you or useful to you.


  15. Oh, noes! I’m be out of town–email me @ my colostate.edu address & we can confer. Maybe we’ll overlap a bit.

    I agree that some writing support groups can become not-writing support groups, but fortunately, I’ve never been part of one of those. (And I worry that some who would write end up burning a lot of valuable time humoring the complainers rather than getting more writing done!)


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