OF MFAS AND SHITTY WRITING — A RESPONSE TO RYAN BOUDINOT

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[1/20 — As readers of Endurancewriter may have noticed, I am going through the blog backwards and revising all the old pieces before posting any new stuff. I may never get to the new stuff. In the annals of awkward endings that would take the cake, except it doesn’t matter. It never did matter. One sentence is important as the other, in any given moment of time. Particularly meaningful, as time may soon cease to exist for humans.

Global warming matters. 8.6 million pieces of micro plastic in every cubit foot of ocean water matters. The loss of hedges as a place for ecosystems to thrive in the European margin matters. The way opportunists have fracked the American West matters. The far worse situation in every other continent matters. There, I said it. Important, in this moment in time.

This piece is one I have had particular reluctance to edit because it seems to convey a confidence that what I am doing as a writer is right and should be rewarded. Maybe in my heart I believe my stuff is unique and worthy, but the marketplace has not backed that up. What is a marketplace? I think I can say that in this society, it involves rewards going to the wrong people most of the time. Most are now aware enough of how the algorithm and flattened attention span works not to dismiss this as mere Sad Sackism. Evolutionary wrong foot, race to the bottom.

I have scaled my own personal mountain, created some stuff I am proud of and feel may last. The feeling of personal accomplishment is pretty solid. I have even thought out a strategy of ensuring that any money generated goes toward a system that trumps those have expedited global warming, sown hate (and yeah, incidentally, rejected my stuff). The — of the world, noteworthy not only for their stupidity but their minions. Denial a hell of a drug.

Another reason why re-editing is challenging: toning down all the ego-driven statements (admitted, there were a few in the above) and burnishing the decent prose to a satisfying glow is a major chore. Yet there is some kindling here, can’t just throw it all away.…]

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There is only one line. No erasure. Suffer No Fools. © Damon Arvid, 2019.

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, Seattle City of Literature executive director Ryan Boudinot speaks about what makes some writers shine and others not so much. As a creative writer on the cusp [of obscurity] I have a few thoughts on his provocatively titled piece.

Boudinot begins by asserting “writers are born with talent.” I am not so sure — at some level, certainly, 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 fixed at birth too static a construct to encompass the sheer malleability of existence.

Talent seems to me related to how much thought and effort is put into any endeavor. [This is different from “practice makes perfect” dictum — mindful no-practice can be the best training, moreover, it clears the palate.]

Maybe talent 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 never appear unless beckoned. [How does one beckon ego, which at best is barely controlled? Let stories appear in dreams and dreams appear on the page.]

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”*

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. [This may stand as an early “OK Boomer” moment, ironic considering that Generation, Inc., now considers me fully in that greybeard category]

Familiarity with the constructs of classic literature is a given among writers worth reading, with well-worn tropes constantly 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 work toward fusion. [Then cocaine happened. Sad end of many good musicians in the 1970s.]

“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 period of serious reading is best followed by a lifetime of reading purely for fun. [Make it seem so fun that no one will pay you.]

These days I have a nearly perfectly random approach to reading and take months 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. Catching myself off-guard is the only way I know of growing. [Addendum: I will flip through nearly any book but to get me past the first few pages takes considerable authorial skill.]

Example: 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 visit 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.

[Never did get to London or what turned out to be a really dry history book. But I did discover Tulum and fabric flute along the way.]

Boudinot’s greatest scorn is reserved for those MFA students who complain about not having enough time to read. He suggests 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. [Bitter butter, better butter, buttery toffee tip top — what this slop?]

Boudinot goes on to assert “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 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.” [I really can’t believe this line. Why am I even writing about a wanker like Boudinot?]

Yet there is an element of truth to Boudinot’s contorted and offensive attempt at humor. Self-effacement and restraint get you far. In Arisugawa Park [now A Beautiful Case of the Blues], 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 online commenter astutely points 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.” [Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the agentless, penniless, wonder of the literary world. High on his mountaintop….]

I return to wholehearted agreement with Boudinot in his final assertion that “It’s important to woodshed.” His point is so well constructed 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 the EnduranceWriter blog. Now, back to the hard work of creating words and sentences composed of exactly 26 letters. [I think that was a veiled reference to the presumptive heavyweight Twitter novel of the world, Testcut.]

Viva la tortuga.

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Novel — A Beautiful Case of the Blues — endurancewriter.comdamonarvid.com — cloud novels, music on Utoob: fabric — Summon These Days… etc ad finitum

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