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Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One

28 February 2015

From The Stranger:

I recently left a teaching position in a master of fine arts creative-writing program. I had a handful of students whose work changed my life. The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers. And then there were students whose work was so awful that it literally put me to sleep. Here are some things I learned from these experiences.

Writers are born with talent.

Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t. Some people have more talent than others. That’s not to say that someone with minimal talent can’t work her ass off and maximize it and write something great, or that a writer born with great talent can’t squander it. It’s simply that writers are not all born equal. The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late. Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.

. . . .

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 graduatestudent!), 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.

Link to the rest at The Stranger and thanks to Karen for the tip.

Writing Advice

115 Comments to “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One”

  1. The author has some good points about not letting laziness and your ego get in the way of your writing . But his age-ist crap makes me want to beat him with my cane.

    • Heh, ‘I’ started trying to write on the wrong side of 45, so he might have a point. I’m still pretending nine years later and those first couple years look (to me at least) like something a clueless prat would have banged out. Oh, the moans from my friend/proofreader from my punctuation and their/they’re your/you’re errors! But he didn’t give up on me, and while I do have to admit to being slow I can be taught (if you use a large enough clue-by-four!) One thing I do know did help is that I’ve been a lifelong ‘reader’, which exposed me to the ideas and writing styles of many other writers.

      Like many things, starting something ‘older’ may mean you pick it up a little slower, but most old dogs can be taught new tricks — but they’ll more often fall back on their old ones.

      .

      Marriage is a three ring circus: engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffering. — Roger Price

      • I think that he was talking about being a reader from a young age, although it did sound at first as if he was saying you had to be writing in your cradle. Not very clearly put for an MFA instructor.

        • Perhaps that’s why he’s out of teaching MFA, it — or teaching — wasn’t his true calling …

          .

          Youth is when you blame all your troubles on your parents; maturity is when you learn that everything is the fault of the younger generation.

        • Lydia, I get what you and several folks below say about reading v. writing. I read that particular paragraph in the OP a couple of times before I made my comment, and the author is not clear about the difference. For someone who claims to be an expert in written communication, that’s a major faux pas.

        • I think that he was talking about being a reader from a young age, although it did sound at first as if he was saying you had to be writing in your cradle.

          The way he’s written I’m not sure if you’re correct. It doesn’t help that he talks about both “pursuing creative writing” and being “crazy about books as a kid” as if they’re the same thing. The thing is, though, that but he leads with writing, not reading. I’ve heard writing “professionals” that have said that if you aren’t writing by the time you’re in your teens it’s too late to learn, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he falls into that camp.

      • I also started beyond the time he states so I guess I’m too late to the game? :/ I loved reading from a young age, but hated writing–the physical aspect. It hurt my hand. I blame all those stupid homework assignments to write definitions of words from the dictionary. Ugh. My hand would cramp so badly while doing those, that I never wanted to put pen to paper for fun. I learned to type in highschool, but didn’t have a typewriter at home. It wasn’t until we got our first computer when I was in my 30s that everything came together. I started writing for fun then, and continued for over ten years so I feel I put in my time learning before ever attempting something to sell.

        • I’m left handed and didn’t learn cursive until I was in 7th grade. Needless to say it wasn’t until I got my hands over a keyboard that I discovered I actually liked producing the written word.

          I wrote for fun for a while but roughly around my junior year in high school I discovered what a nepotism-filled and corrupt world the “get published” slush pile really was I promptly dropped writing in favor of a career that could realistically expect to pull myself out of poverty. It wasn’t until later in life, right before my 30s, that the ebook market has opened up and allowed me to pursue writing as a profession.

          I guess, according to some, you and I are “too old”. That’s fine; my bank account says otherwise.

        • if you substitute “making up stories” for “writing”, even if this is stories you tell others, running a roleplaying game, or even just imagining stories that you never tell others, would you still say that you didn’t start until late in life?

          • Oh, interesting.

            I was making up stories by the time I was 5, because I couldn’t go to sleep as early as I was put to bed, and it was boring lying awake in the dark for hours and hours.

            Huh.

            And, yes, I was making up stories for others (RPGs) by the time I was in my teens.

            I’d always considered the RPG modules that I wrote for publication to be part of my writer’s training. But I think you are correct in deeming other story telling activities to be training as well.

          • David, I agree. I’d bet than most who start writing later in life were always storytellers in one form or another, they just probably didn’t realize it.

            I started writing at a very young age, was always a voracious reader, had vivid dreams and daydreamed a lot, but didn’t pursue publishing my work until I learned about self-publishing when I was in my early fifties.

    • Yes.

      If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

      Oh dear, another smug little made-up rule. Writing isn’t like ballet, static trapeze or playing the violin, where the window of opportunity closes at an early age.

      • I have nearly zero desire to read anything a teenager comes up with. The interesting writers have life experience. I guess in some genres being young and hip and having written a lot as a kid are important.

        I’ll put my dozens of street fights, bar stories, tragic relationships, health scares, family trama and drama, military adventures, karaoke competitions, court battles and the thousands of books I’ve read up against any benefit that’s to be had by starting young.

        Also it’s just empirically incorrect. Just off the top of my head John Ringo started older than I did. So did many other professionals. Dean Wesley Smith wrote his first novel in his mid thirties if I’m not mistaken.

        • Gah, I need an edit button.

          I think the writer of the article misspoke there. I think they were talking about reading. Taking reading seriously at a young age. He might be correct about learning to read and loving to read early being important to writing well later in life. It’s definitely true with learning language.

        • i dig what you have lived– and written about JB

    • Another thing about his ageist crap is his dismay at learning someone didn’t read The Great Gatsby as a teen. The horror! Could it be their high school teachers never put it on the syllabus for a reason? Maybe it’s because that teacher realized teens are not the right audience for that book, and in that case, that high school teacher was smarter than this professor.

      I was never forced to read Gatsby as a teen and I consider that a good thing. I read it well into adulthood, and I loved it, but I knew damned well I would have hated it as a kid. There’s nothing there for a kid to relate to!

      But nooo, according to The Holy Protectors of the Great Literary Canon, a good book is objectively good for everyone at all times, and therefore if you don’t like it there is no hope for you. To the saltmines with you, uncultured swine!

      • I still haven’t read The Great Gatsby, and I’m closing on my 60th birthday. There are lots of certified classics I still haven’t read, and some I have. I don’t feel guilty or stressed out about it. Just because The Great Gatsby is this ex-Herr Professor’s literary touchstone doesn’t mean anything to anyone except himself and doesn’t prove anything about the taste or inclinations of someone who hasn’t read it.

      • I think his biggest problem wasn’t the fact that the book hadn’t been read before that (although, for someone working to get a Masters in writing, that is a bit odd), but rather the complaint that they didn’t like to have to “work so hard to understand the words.”

        first off, that’s not great for a reader, but for someone who is supposed to be doing Masters level work????

        • True, and this is a problem more endemic of the system as a whole. For one, the bar to getting a BA is actually pretty low, and the student who most commonly seeks an MFA afterwards is one who doesn’t know what else to do with themselves. Too many of them consider continuing their schooling a free pass to screwing around for a few more years. I have seen it myself, time and time again.

          Nevertheless, any good arguments the article’s author has is marred by his inability to understand the brain’s plasticity (well into adulthood) and the fact that he was responsible for teaching not just the good students, but the bad. It’s possible to turn a pool-hall slacker into a good student. This I know because I was, for a time, that pool-hall slacker, and one good teacher turned me around. No one is unsalvageable. The failure here partly is his own.

    • I’ll join you with my walker

  2. The anecdote at the end made me chuckle. Up to that point I had taken a dark view of the writer’s point of view.

    You need talent, hard work and luck if you want to be a chess grandmaster, Nobel economist, olympic speed-skater or US senator … You get the point.

    Some callings have built-in demand, like engineering or medicine and you don’t have to be a star to get a job and earn a living. The demand for good writers is much lower in comparison. And some fall into the trap of believing that all writers fall into two categories: stars and pretenders who will never make it.

    There is much discussion as to what will happen in the future as computers start reducing the demand for analytical jobs such as journalist, economist, engineer, attorney and physician.

    • There is much discussion as to what will happen in the future as computers start reducing the demand for analytical jobs such as journalist, economist, engineer, attorney and physician.

      Only “analytical” jobs face future machine competition? Not so. Fiction writers are not magically exempt. Machines will soon write fiction as well as we do. Very shortly thereafter, they’ll write it far better than we do. To assume otherwise is hubris.

      http://www.hughhowey.com/humans-need-not-apply/

      • You’re preaching to the choir and you are absolutely right. In my day job, I work for a small publishing company that publishes technical information for a profession. I see first hand how algorithms are pretty much doing the whole thing. The humans are basically overseers. We oversee the packaging of the information.

        A non-software person would be amazed at how few people are required to research, organize, format and publish two hundred books a year. It seems like it would require magic. Then when you show and explain the process, it seems like no work at all because it’s all pretty straightforward and done by software algorithms.

        • Totally agree, Jessy.

          Most people would be amazed by what algorithms and artificial intelligence are capable of accomplishing using today’s supercomputers… how much “creativity” they are capable of bringing to bear when solving problems.

          And in less than two decades, that level of supercomputing power and AI will cost $200 and fit in your pocket. And then it will change the world.

      • As much as I look forward to the era where our AI and robotics tech is good enough to put most people out of work I fear, quite strongly, that our economic and sociopolitical systems will fail to navigate the transition peacefully.

        The simple fact is most work, done by most people, can and will be able to be automated within the lifetime of either my generation (the millenials), or my son’s. We, as a civilization, aren’t equipped to handle the idea that work can be accomplished without people having to work. The entire point of our technology, at every step of the way, has been to solve problems and make our lives easier. That won’t stop people who can’t see the changes for what they are from screaming “moocher” and taking us all down with them.

        • Agreed. Tech will move faster than culture.

        • Oh, there will be war and tribulation, and most of the human race will die. But, in the long run, we’ll be much better off; in no small part, because it will be the end of ‘systems’, which were largely an industrial-era invention thanks to the centralization that industry made possible. Your ‘system’ isn’t going to be able to tell me what to do when I have a billion robot army.

      • I’m looking forward to the day when I can plot out a novel, feed it to an algorithm, have the algorithm write up a passable rough draft, and then revise and/or touch up the draft myself. With a workflow like that, I could probably put out thirty novels a year!

        While I acknowledge that automation may one day produce a robot/algorithm that can write better books than I can, there will never be a machine that can write a Joe Vasicek book. That’s why I’m not worried.

        • @ Joe

          “I’m looking forward to the day when I can plot out a novel, feed it to an algorithm…”

          I bet Patterson is looking forward to that day, too. Then he won’t have to pay his stable of ghostwriters anymore! Once you acquire them, software works for really cheap wages. 😉

  3. Wow. Just wow.

    I wonder if the music/theater/engineering schools talk about talent? Or if they insist on working hard and mastering your craft? Perhaps they expect their students to actually make a living doing what they paid tens of thousands to learn?

    Obligatory reading: http://kriswrites.com/2012/07/04/the-business-rusch-careers-critics-and-professors/

    • Felix J. Torres

      Well, I can’t speak to the music or theater side but in engineering it is made clear early on that the engineering professions require a very specific mindset for each. Attrition in class size is typical as engineering students switch majors or move to the sciences or arts.

      While a fondness for math and science is useful, in general it requires a problem-solving mindset and near-pathological stubborness. 🙂

  4. “Literary” writing is just another genre. Nothing more, nothing less.

    The greatest trick MFA programs ever pulled is convincing the world that if we find a piece of “literary” work boring or incomprehensible, the fault lies with the reader’s lack of sophistication, rather than the writer’s lack of competence.

    • I love how Prof. Boudinot is so dismissive of students who describe literary fiction as “the classics” and who have the temerity to say they don’t like them. Newsflash professor: almost to a tee the academic world considers the literary genre, particularly the stuff written prior to 1960, as “the classics”. Very often those classics share narrative themes and linguistic styles that seem, at best, archaic.

      I’ll admit, I’ve ever had a lot of positive regard for that genre because, while I can appreciate it from a technical standpoint, it bores me to tears and I consider it bad storytelling.

      If you make students read works that they can’t stand, while dismissing their reasons their opinion as simple them lacking sophistication, don’t be surprised when they neither engage with the works or get much out of the class.

      • Smart Debut Author

        To his or her credit, despite all the writerlier-than-thou posturing, the author of this article does say:

        I grew increasingly intolerant of writing designed to make the writer look smart, clever, or edgy…writing that’s motivated by the desire to give the reader a pleasurable experience really is best… [a student’s] only job was to keep me entertained, and the ones who got it started to enjoy themselves, and the work got better…The funny thing is, if you can put your ego on the back burner and focus on giving someone a wonderful reading experience, that’s the cleverest writing.

        True dat.

      • Smart Debut Author

        If you make students read works that they can’t stand, while dismissing their reasons their opinion as simple them lacking sophistication, don’t be surprised when they neither engage with the works or get much out of the class.

        And if you are a Big Five publisher who throws most of your marketing dollars behind boring, self-indulgent pieces of crap like The Goldfinch which most people can’t force themselves to even finish, while dismissing their genre tastes as “supermarket fodder” and “pulp,” don’t be surprised when self-published books grab a third of the digital market from you, while the rest of America only wants to buy one or two of your overhyped, unreadable books a year. 😀

      • Classics are “classics” precisely because they’ve stood the test of time. Just because Kentucky Fried Chicken sells millions of meals doesn’t make it great food. It’s still Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’m sorry you don’t get along with the classics, but don’t rip into a certain type of book based on sales. Because if you do that you’re saying 50 Shades of Grey is the greatest novel ever written. And even you must be able to see it’s not.

        • I strongly believe that If our education system was having students read and analyse stories they enjoyed we’d have better post-schooling readership rates. I also strongly believe that many classics are simply classic because of pedagogical inertia.

          If our education system is turning most of our students away from books it’s not the fault of the students, it’s the fault of the teaching methods and material we’re using to teach them.

        • Because if you do that you’re saying 50 Shades of Grey is the greatest novel ever written. And even you must be able to see it’s not.

          That would depend on the standard employed in judging books.

          Kentucky Fried Chicken has been around for precisely 63 years. If we consider the time prior to changing the name to KFC, it has been around for 85 years. How long does it have to stay before it stands the test of time? How many years before it gets the coveted classic badge?

          • “Stood the test of time” doesn’t just mean “having been around”.

          • Why not? The restaurant business is about as cutthroat at business gets, so “having been around” for the better part of a century quite clearly means that KFC has withstood plenty of tests. Your personal opinion as to the quality of their food is irrelevant, and your insistence on seeing “classic literature” in the same light simply highlights the very pedagogical inertia I mentioned earlier.

          • “Stood the test of time” doesn’t just mean “having been around”.

            OK. What does the test of time mean? What is the test? How does time factor into it?

            With KFC, over an 85 year period billions have consumed it, enjoyed it, returned over and over to consume it again, passed their enjoyment of it down to their children and grand children, and consumption has steadily increased.

        • “Just because Kentucky Fried Chicken sells millions of meals doesn’t make it great food. It’s still Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

          KFC has around since 1930, and in franchise since 1952. That’s an eternity in the restaurant business. Personally, I’m okay with calling KFC a classic.

      • Is “the classics” really one genre? Tom Sawyer is the same as Pride and Prejudice?

        He wasn’t making fun of the students for not wanting to read old books, he was making fun of Masters level students considering all classics to be the same.

        • The writers are unique, with their own voices and conventions, but that doesn’t change the fact that, to some students, the archaic language and cultural conventions these books contain make them unenjoyable.

          I’d rather real Homer that anything written in English prior to 1900 simply for those reasons, and I love to read. I look around at my fellow former students and see very few readers, and I feel quite strongly that it’s because of what they were forced to read as students.

          You can’t make students enjoy the written word when you insist on using the same books they were teaching from 50 years ago, not if the only reason the books are used is that they’re familiar to the teacher and the lesson plans are well established.

    • I do believe I’d rather go to the dentist than read anything assigned to me in High School and College English/Lit class. But hey, I still respect the genre. Taste is an individual thing. I very much chafe at the notion that fine lit sits on top though, so I like to raz the fine lit people by calling it masturbatory schlock.

      I think there’s a fine lit guy around here, J.L Something? Pay no intention to my uncultured prattle. 🙂

      • Same here. I’m all for “to each their own”, but the moment someone gets on the litfic soapbox you can expect me to be heckling from the front row. I don’t have many hot button issues that get me going quite like an unhealthy dose of elitism.

    • Well said.

  5. Wow! Some of this was great.

    …I find questions about working with agents and editors increasingly old-fashioned. Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening. My advice is for writers to reject the old models and take over the production of their own and each other’s work as much as possible.

    …I grew increasingly intolerant of writing designed to make the writer look smart, clever, or edgy. I know this work when I see it; I’ve written a fair amount of it myself. But writing that’s motivated by the desire to give the reader a pleasurable experience really is best.

    And some of it enraged me.

    If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

    Gah!

    • Great quotes! Thanks for sharing.

    • Remember that all of this may be true, but only for MFA students. Selection bias could be a contributing factor. How many people who really want to write enjoyable stories feel they have to get a MFA?

      (and p.s. to J.M.–thanks for the very nice review! I hope the rest of the trilogy holds up for you 😉 )

      • 😀

        You’re very welcome. Loved The Long Way Home and Raven’s Children. Can’t wait to read Queen of Chaos.

        I also enjoyed The Correct Way to Fill Out Form PCR-103-u. Found it very amusing and quite entertaining.

        Write on, Sabrina!

        (Good point about the subject pool: MFA students.)

        For my fellow TPVers who like to read SFF, Sabrina’s books:

        http://www.amazon.com/Sabrina-Chase/e/B006GQE0B2/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1425147984&sr=1-2-ent

      • Yeah, the selection bias is so strong in this one his perspective is totally skewed. It consists of students who badly want to write, but have been groomed into thinking they need a degree to validate that desire, and students who are merely p****** about so they can suckle longer on the academic teet to avoid the real world. Of course they’re going to write boring stories. They haven’t LIVED yet.

        And this is why he’s so off base about writers finding their calling later in life. Those are the people who are writing because they’ve gathered enough life experience to have something interesting to say.

        You know, as opposed to the academic dingleberries who write turgid novels about college professors wanting to have sex with their students because that’s the only life they’ve lived and can’t see past their own shoes.

        • Smart Debut Author

          …opposed to the academic dingleberries who write turgid novels about college professors wanting to have sex with their students because that’s the only life they’ve lived and can’t see past their own shoes.

          This. So much this. Gack. 😀

          Nubile young students desperately throwing themselves at their MFA professors is sooooo overdone, so pedestrian, so booooring — so unbelievably cliche — and yet lots of “literary” writers seem to lack the imagination to write about anything else. This sophmoric and juvenile trope appears in like 50% of the “literary” books I’ve ever read. Even worse, like a mad-cow-disease prion, the trope has also wormed it’s way into non-literary books. Flynn’s Gone Girl glorified it. Even B.V. Larson’s otherwise-fun Star Force series couldn’t avoid it.

          I rather suspect its prevalence results from pathetic attempts at neurolinguistic programming by horny sad-sack MFA professors. 😉

          • So I’m not the only tired of middle-aged, white, middle-class, male angst in the literary genre? 😀

            I know there’s a few folks who think I’m trashing the literary genre (or white guys in my age group). But when a trope is overused in ANY genre, you’re going to lose your audience. I love fantasy, but even I’m getting tired of the tortured, emo vamps, which is why I’m killing mine off this summer.

          • Oh sweet Suzan. BTW I liked your elder confident vampire character quite a bit, I’m forgetting his name. He had a thing for that witch lady. From Blood Magick.

          • I know there’s a few folks who think I’m trashing the literary genre (or white guys in my age group).

            It’s always open season for jackasses, even if they are white guys.

          • Hey, not all white men….

            Sorry, couldn’t help it. 🙂

          • @Joseph – Caesar? Heck, I had to steal him from history. 😀

          • Joseph Bradshire

            Wait, was that THE Caesar? Gah! How did I miss that!?

      • I took enough English courses in college to get into a 300-level creative writing course, but that’s as far as I took things. The writing they taught at my university, with a marked lack of any appreciation for genre fiction (i.e. the stuff I enjoyed reading) put me off of ever even considering more classes in the field.

        At least on my campus you could separate the students who valued storytelling over those who saw things from a more “academic” perspective, easily. The storytellers tended to be a little older, a lot more fun, and more prone to hanging out at the local coffee shop slash pub.

        You can guess which was more popular.

        • I avoided creative fuction classes for that reason. Instead i took the most demanding non-fiction writing courses bc those taught technique and craft; i got a toolbox to shape fiction with, not the paint by numbers experience of someone else shaping my fiction for me.

          ETA totally leaving the typo bc in light of the whole thread…hilarious

      • How many people who really want to write enjoyable stories feel they have to get a MFA?

        How many consumers who really want to read enjoyable stories give a hoot if the author has an MFA or GED?

    • Joseph Bradshire

      JM I think the age thing was a mistake, I think they meant to say you have to have taken ‘reading’ or books seriously. As an MFA teacher you can understand how they might conflate reading and thinking about it with being a writer.

      Anyway, the statement isn’t so obviously incorrect if you read it as taking reading and books seriously as a young person leading to being a good writer/student later in life.

  6. When I was a very young lad, an old English writer called Roald Dahl came to visit my school and I asked him what to do if I wanted to be a writer for a living. He said study business at university, write a lot, read a lot, and learn from people who have made a living at it.

  7. In my first MFA year I wrote seven novels and self-published. They have made me financially independent so work is no longer required of me. That’s right, after one year I was earning six figures. In my first MFA year I took no classes and went to no consortiums because, um, actually, the six schools I applied to all rejected me.* That’s right, my first MFA year was actually the year I enrolled in my own program when no one else would have me.

    I turned 72 in my first MFA year.

    * Iowa, Cornell, Wisconsin, Michigan, Brown, Arizona.

    • In your case, you probably got a better education not attending. And I wonder of those who did attend, how many started generating income or were hired right out of the programs?

      Oh yes, and I almost forgot, you also didn’t have to fork out tens of thousands of dollars (or borrow it) for the privilege.

    • Hah! Great story, John! Huge congrats for your success. 😀

    • Congrats! (and thanks for pointing out us older ‘wet behind the ears’ writing wannabes have a chance! 😉 )

      .

      I use not only all the brains I have, but all those I can borrow as well. — Woodrow Wilson

    • This thread is awesome. Seriously.

      “…and that’s the year I no longer had to worry about money…”

    • When I was about 45 I wrote a SF novel – space opera, I stored the typed ms away. I re-read the story when I was packing to move house. I thought – well apart from a thousand or so editing errors, it felt like a good story.

      So I re-wrote it and self-published. It seems to do OK. Since then [over the past two years], I’ve written another four books [again self-published].

      Are they any good? Well, my readers enjoy them.

      I’m halfway through writing my sixth book and have an outline ready for the 7th.

      My point – I turned 76 this year.

      Hey – grey power is REAL power.

      No, that’s not a typo – where I come from, that’s the correct spelling – drives my editors mad, trying to correct for US publication.

      [We could have a competition to discover who is the oldest reader of TPV].

      • I think it would be more interesting to see who the youngest TPV reader is! 🙂

        (I have a feeling that most of us here have more than a modicum of “life experience.”)

      • John Hindmarsh:

        Love your website, books look great, cool picture of you. Way to go!

        John

    • To John Ellsworth & John Hindmarsh–

      Inspirational guys, both of you.

      John Ellsworth,
      I wish you’d write a little ebook with a title like: My Alternative to an MFA.

      Thanks,

    • Visited your website. Loved the book covers. But this one at the end of the website amused me:

      The New York Times Bestseller (coming March 2015)

      Two thoughts:

      1. Your site says March but your Amazon page says May. Which is it?

      2. Anyone here want to start a pool on when he’ll get a Cease and Desist from the Times?

      • Hi Bill, it’s May. My premature ambitions overfloweth.

        Cease and desist? I have a lot of company who freely state “New York Times Best Seller” on their book covers. My next book (keep this secret please) might just be titled “The USA Today Bestseller.” We’re still working out the kinks on that one.

        *Takes tongue out of cheek*

  8. 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.

    Some good points spoiled by this callousness.

    Maybe try a multi-vitamin with a recommended daily allowance of compassion in it, Mr. Chips. And maybe the fact that you no longer have to worry about losing a job because you’ve written this doesn’t mean you should have gone public with your spleen-venting when your former students, at least one of whom commented on the original item, can see it.

    Did they really deserve that?

  9. After years of listening to DWS tell writers to watch The Voice to learn how artists get better, I’m finally watching this season. And you know what I am blown away by? How utterly kind the mega stars are to the artists who don’t make it through. How positive they are. It’s like they must know that “failed” art takes just as much guts and blood and sweat and tears and sacrifice to make as the “good” stuff. And how they know that “not today” could just mean “not yet”. No one knows if your “not today” is “just not yet”, including this guy.

    • Brilliant! Love what you said, Megan. Thank you!

    • You know, this is a great point. Just as everyone thinks they have a book in them, the internet pretty much made anyone with a keyboard a critic, and a great many of them aren’t very good ones because, to them, “criticism” means “telling artists how crappy their work is.”

      But the best criticism is both constructive and positive. While it might enumerate flaws, it’s best when there are (polite) suggestions for improvement. And in the world of literature, great criticism (and the critics who offer it) elevate the conversation of literature in the world, and that’s amazing.

      I see way too many negative reviews online that are more about demonstrating the reviewers’ self-perceived cleverness and superiority than about the work in question.

    • Yes. This. I find The Voice utterly inspirational as a writer. To succeed you have to: 1. Get out from behind your own insecurity and take that stage. 2. Belt it like you believe it. 3. Digest the feedback. 4. Believe you will win, even when the rest of the country has bet on the other guy/gal.

    • No one works hard to create a bad piece of art. Not even Ed Wood.

  10. I just saw a tweet from a current MFA teacher who linked to this article saying she agreed with almost none of it.

  11. You know what my grandpa always used to tell me? Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.

  12. Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening.

    Loved this.

    • It’s hard to know what’s going on in the industry when that very same industry is shoving their heads in the sand and ignoring any data that conflicts with their legacy positioning.

  13. His conviction that you either have it or you don’t only goes to show how garbage he was as a teacher. Of course he’s going to fail to teach them if he’s convinced 97% of them are going to fail to learn. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, and the failure is on his end, not theirs.

    The thing about this guy’s “Real Deal” students is they’re the ones who have cultivated such a love of books beforehand that they’re the only ones who are learning in his class DESPITE him.

    Which pretty much sums up why MFA programs are worthless. If you want to write, don’t ask someone who has failed upwards in academia to be your mentor.

    • The thing about this guy’s “Real Deal” students is they’re the ones who have cultivated such a love of books beforehand that they’re the only ones who are learning in his class DESPITE him.

      Yup.

    • Smart Debut Author

      *claps*

    • Sarah, I love your blog! Stop by here more often!

      • Thanks, Susan! As my blog can attest, this guy’s can’t-do attitude is one my hot buttons. I used to be one of those “Real Deal” students, but I have way more sympathy for the other 97% than the poor poor professors who have to deal with them. Boy am I sure glad I never took an MFA. I’ve seen more professors kill the love of art/writing in a student than inspire it.

        I used 97% specifically because on the first day of art college, that’s the number a professor gave for how many of us were going to fail to become artists in their little “welcoming” pep-talk.

        • I also want to add, one teacher (one of the good ones) explained the attitude the bad teachers had. They were not there to teach us how to be artists, they were there to teach us to be good little art appreciators, particularly of the art the teachers made. This meant, when the “failed” art student (the more the merrier, because it meant less competition for the teachers in the art scene) graduated and got jobs as middle managers, they’d buy their teacher’s art to hang on their dreary office walls.

        • In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig (a college professor) related a conversation he had with another professor, where he noted that teachers tended to give good grades to those students they identified with.

          The other professor agreed.

          But, replied Pirsig (genuinely puzzled), “The students I relate to are all flunking.”

          (Pirsig, at the time, was going down the tubes mentally, and was later subjected to institutionalization and electro-shock “therapy.”)

    • Excellent point. Also, if you’re a lousy teacher, of course you think students who haven’t learned to write by the time they were a teenager won’t make it. Because obviously you have nothing to offer anyone who doesn’t already know how to write.

  14. “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.”

    Exactly.

    • It’ll be interesting to see how this mentality evolves as those younger than us, the kids growing up on wattpad and fanfiction.net, start publishing. There are a few authors on both platforms that I could list off the top of my head that are as good, if not better, than 90% of the genre authors I’ve ever read. And they nearly all learned their craft, sometimes painfully, one publicly released chapter at a time.

  15. If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

    There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late. Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.

    These are the kinds of statements people make when they haven’t learned yet to check their facts with reality.

    There are too many folks who started writing in their 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond who have reached readers and, if it’s your measure of success, gotten contracts from trad pub houses.

    As for reading, how about all those big name authors who are dyslexic?

    http://www.dyslexicwriters.com/#!famous-writers-dyslexia/cwvn

    Yeah, words were definitely in their neural DNA. I’m sure they were just eating up the novels in their teens.

    I don’t dispute the suggestion that reading a lot helps. But these categorical statements are silly.

  16. Age has nothing to do with writing talent.
    College writing programs are probably useless, but they tend to be popular, due to the mistaken belief by students that they can have fun and become writers.
    Reading has everything to do with writing well and is an absolute requirement. It stands to reason that the older you are and the more books you have read the better qualified you are.
    So there!

  17. I can see why this person taught in an MFA program.

    I can also see why he left it.

    KKR has some rather pungent opinions about MFA programs and how they relentlessly mold writers into being only MFA instructors who, in turn, teach others to become MFA instructors, in a self-perpetuating closed-system cycle.

    She notes that only people with MFAs are permitted to teach MFA programs. And that their world view is completely skewed. (The writer of this OP being a good example.) Actual published authors — sans an MFA — are unwelcome to teach real world writing in these MFA programs.

  18. Another article that loses all credibility by being wrong on the very first point. While natural talent does vary among potential writers, this isn’t pro basketball where only the very tall have a chance to succeed. In the writing business, hard work, persistence, and determination trump talent.

    • In the writing business, hard work, persistence, and determination trump talent.

      Does it trump deployed talent with the same level of hard work, persistence, and determination?

  19. of the three points on the face page, i can find hundreds of exceptions I know personally. Too often talent is perceived, by often narrow=ideas. Tons of people before printing press didnt read a scumble of books and managed to write enduring books. Tons of people across the world, billions in fact have no book access, and yet if they know how to write, write. I want to read their works about their lives esp, without qualification thrust upon them. Yeah, many of us knew we would be writers when we learned to write, age 6. So what. Over life time have seen many good books by people who began in midage and older, some becoming bestsellers. I’m reminded that animals who are kept in cages also become lethargic and not filled with life any longer. There are many ways to put human beings in cages, also. I vote against it.

  20. Bupkis—though the issue may, in fact, come down to intellectual rigor. Ballerinas have a narrow window. Writing is for life. The written word is one of the greatest equalizers of all time–if not the greatest!

    Only minds pinched narrow in MFA corsets would try to steal a pen from an old lady’s hand. You don’t need a credential. You don’t have to have begun at five. And you don’t need to be a prodigy.

    maternitymindfulnessandmuses.blogspot.com

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