In his recent article in The Stranger (February, 2015) “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” Ryan Boudinot speaks frankly about what makes some writers shine and others not so much. As a creative writer on the cusp, I have a few thoughts on his pointed, provocatively titled piece.
Boudinot begins by asserting “writers are born with talent.” I am not so sure about this—certainly, at some level, the brain chemistry must be there to grasp sounds and murmured intimations from mother and other influencers. However, I am a firm believer that talent isn’t innate—personal evolution as we grow is too complex, talent too static a construct.
Talent seems to me related to how much thought and effort one puts into any endeavor. Moreover, it has to do with whether the palette of vocabulary and experience at hand is sufficient to convincingly capture flitting thoughts. There is an element of play to good writing, of catching oneself off guard—once a certain competency has been reached, the reins should be lax and ego should not appear unless beckoned.
My novel Arisugawa Park has been ten years in the making. Talent, insofar as it shines through on the page, has largely involved a willingness to put in the time and effort to make my characters and setting as real as possible—days and weeks spent meticulously daydreaming, puzzling out. The words have been molded and remolded until they captured the exact mood and pace I was aiming for. All of this work has not been for nothing, exactly. The manuscript has garnered a respected agent and is about to be shopped to the NY publishers.
Boudinot opines “if you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it” (noted exception, Haruki Murakami). This statement seems both true and obvious. The necessity of even mentioning an early love for literature as prerequisite for being a decent writer probably has to do with the phenomenon of Baby Boomers (with more time on their hands than talent) entering the creative writing/MFA sphere in droves.
Familiarity with the constructs of classic literature is a given among high-level writers, even if the well-worn tropes are to be deconstructed. Miles Davis knew the bop canon inside and out before he created modal jazz. Having pioneered the latter form, he was in a nice position to deconstruct further and invent fusion. The former intern with my agency (now an assistant editor with HarperCollins) mentioned that she believed my classic style allowed me to “get away with a lot” in terms of narrative (de)construction. I’ll go with what she said, although I had no idea my style was classic.
“If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.” Amen to that, with reservations. I think a lengthy apprenticeship of serious reading should be followed by a lifetime of reading purely for fun. I have a hodge-podge approach to reading and take a month or more to finish most books. I digest a little each day, mulling as I go. If “taking literature seriously” is a no brainer, akin to holding your breath as you jump off the deep end, not taking literature seriously is equally as important. I no longer read anything with explicit aim (unless researching specific background materials). Catching myself off-guard as a reader is the only way I know of growing as a writer.
I just read Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon for the first time. It really blew me away—pitch perfect descriptions of San Francisco, perhaps the first truly unreliable narrator (Sam Spade) and the debut of the femme fatale. I’m now winding my way through Louis de Berniere’s The War For Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts. Pure Marquezian fable, written at a time when magical realism was all the rage. I find myself intrigued by the idea of how a story could be effectively crafted from a dog’s perspective, so will probably read Jack London’s Call of the Wild next. I am really looking forward to perusing William H. Prescott’s The History of the Conquest of Mexico, a 19th century text about Cortez and Montezuma that details tragedies and social occurrences in the places I may or may not travel along the Yucatan peninsula. The common thread linking these books is that they came to me by chance, at hostels in San Francisco, Miami Beach, and Playa del Carmen.
Boudinot’s most withering scorn is reserved for those MFA students who complain about not having enough time to read. He suggests rather unkindly that they should “do us both a favor and drop out.” I am so far out of the MFA loop that I have nothing to say about this. I do know that I was not accepted into the UC Santa Cruz creative writing program during my tender college years and wear this as a badge of pride. Even then, I realized that the best route toward really having something worthwhile to say involved experiencing life first hand. And it worked—I think I am in, by the skin of my teeth, at age 40. Young for a first-time novelist, even. If I had spent a lifetime coaching writers I considered inferior, I would probably have much the same view as Boudinot—a sheen of bitterness, an instinct to bite the hand that feeds you.
Boudinot goes on to note “No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.” This is a truism if I have ever heard one. A shitty writer by definition produces unloved writing. Other than its snarky tone, the thing I object to most in this assertion is the implication that putting personal issues on the page and being a “shitty writer” are intrinsically linked. Admittedly, many pick up the pen as a form of therapy, but Boudinot crosses the line in saying “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.”
There is an element of truth to Boudinot’s contorted attempt at wit. Self-effacement and restraint will get you far. In Arisugawa Park, I have woven composite fabric from hundreds, probably thousands, of people I have known. I’ve got 99 problems and my own are not among them—on the page at least.
Turning to the emergent Kindle/e-book/self-publishing sphere, Boudinot asserts “You don’t need my help to get published.” He talks with apparent glee about the New York publishing industry sliding into cultural irrelevance. Yet, as one commenter astutely pointed out, Boudinot has apparently achieved low Amazon sales of his own (highly reviewed) volumes. Having done my homework, I will say that I do think that the literary agent is not outmoded and agree with the late PD James, who said in a 2013 BBC interview: “It is much easier now to produce a manuscript with all the modern technology. It is probably a greater advantage now, more than ever before, to have an agent between you and the publisher.”
I do return to wholehearted agreement with Boudinot on his final assertion that “It’s important to woodshed.” His point is so well put that I take the liberty of quoting the entire last paragraph:
We’ve been trained to turn to our phones to inform our followers of our somewhat witty observations. I think the instant validation of our apps is an enemy to producing the kind of writing that takes years to complete. That’s why I advise anyone serious about writing books to spend at least a few years keeping it secret. If you’re able to continue writing while embracing the assumption that no one will ever read your work, it will reward you in ways you never imagined.
This relates to my concept of writing as an unglamorous, hidden, long-slog activity, which I have gone so far as to enshrine as a motivating principal of my EnduranceWriter blog.
Viva la tortuga.