There’s this thing circulating the Internet, and it’s not a questionably-colored dress or a bear acting human. It’s a tell-all from former MFA professor Ryan Boudinot, who burned out, grew bitter, and perhaps should have quit teaching long before he did. He makes some “shocking” statements, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t. His ending message is certainly a good one: becoming a writer takes a really long time (even after the MFA is over), and that “the instant validation of our apps is an enemy to producing the kind of writing that takes years to complete.”
What’s hitting a nerve with people, I think, are his generalizations (“Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question, prove that they are not”) and his snobbishly dismissive tone (“I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare”).
When he talks about the Real Deal, I’m fairly certain he means a writer of literary fiction. He seems like the type to look down on those writing YA or sci-fi/fantasy (or any number of other genres), which are all, in my mind, perfectly legitimate avenues for Real Deal writers to take. (And yeah, I’m currently working with an agent on two middle-grade fantasy novels, so you see where I’m coming from.)
I suppose, in a way though, I know how he feels. I was a student in an MFA program, and I came away with some of my own bitter and frustrated feelings. And, so, here is my own tell-all…
Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I’m No Longer in One
My MFA program did not teach me what I most wanted to learn.
I decided to get an MFA because I wanted to be a novelist, and I knew I needed help with that. My MFA program certainly made me a better writer as I honed my craft through short stories, but I did not learn how to write a novel. Rarely did we discuss plot in our classes, and never did we discuss how to structure or approach a novel. In the end, I had to spend several years after graduation figuring that stuff out on my own. I wrote a few practice novels, I started reading books about writing, and now, more than five years after getting my MFA, I’m finally feeling more confident about writing novels.
My MFA program discouraged me from what might be my calling.
In my MFA program, writing genre fiction was frowned upon. Oh sure, if you wanted to annoy your professor you could write fantasy or mystery — no one was going to point-blank say you couldn’t. But it was recommended that you write realistic fiction. I suppose young adult was considered so beneath us supposedly-serious writers that it wasn’t even discussed.
While in my MFA program, I wrote stories about teenagers and young adults, but of course they were adult stories… right? No one ever suggested that they might be YA. And yet, every single novel I’ve written has turned out to be YA or Middle-Grade, even if I didn’t intend it to be at the beginning. It took me a while to realize and accept that writing YA and MG is my calling. I wish it hadn’t been so taboo in my MFA program so I could have started writing for this age group earlier.
My MFA program did not focus on reading in a helpful way.
In my MFA program, students took literature classes and workshop classes. The literature ones were what you’d expect if you ever took a college lit class: reading critically and writing papers with titles such as “Naturalism in Djuna Barnes’s Short Stories” or “Finding Greek Mythology in Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat.” (Those are actual titles of two papers I wrote.) In the workshop classes, we read and critiqued each other’s work. Never were we assigned to read books on writing (though I now realize many helpful ones exist). Never were we instructed on how to read like a writer instead of like a critic — noticing how novels are structured and how their parts work to create a whole. I would have liked to have learned that in my MFA program. These are things I had to teach myself later on.
My MFA Program did not teach me how to get published.
Ryan Boudinot says students don’t need help getting published in this “Kindle/e-book/self-publishing environment,” but that’s not true. Yes there are more options these days, but that means it’s more confusing than ever to know which publishing path to pursue. I came out of my MFA program thinking I should probably get an agent but having very little idea what that actually meant and how to go about doing it. I read and researched and made many embarrassing mistakes… How helpful it would have been if this topic had been discussed more while I was in my MFA program.
My MFA program helped me find a community of writers… but I could have done that my own.
If I hadn’t gotten my MFA, I never would have met Jennifer Stewart Wallace, founder of Burlesque Press. Besides being super fun and a great friend, Jeni has given me feedback on multiple projects and invaluable advice when I go moping to her with my writing dilemmas. She and some of my other MFA friends form an inspirational and supportive writing community that I’m proud to be a part of.
However, I have also created my own writing communities. When I lived in Seattle, I took a YA workshop class at the Hugo House and have stayed in touch with several of the other students, two of whom recently gave me incredible feedback on my latest novel. And here in Minneapolis, I started a YA writing group, and our meetings are perhaps just as helpful as the MFA workshops of yore that I paid to attend.
Whenever people ask me if my MFA was worth it, I just don’t know what to say.
Without my MFA, I probably wouldn’t have met some of my wonderful friends who comprise a writing community I’ll likely be a part of for the rest of my life. But, like I said, it’s possible to create your own writing community without paying for an MFA.
My MFA helped me to become a better writer, but I might have been able to do that on my own by reading good books on craft and by taking classes at places like the Hugo House in Seattle or The Loft in Minneapolis.
My MFA helped motivate me, but it also made me doubt myself. It helped me explore different writing styles, but it also made me confused about the type of writing I want to do.
In the end, I graduated my MFA program thinking “OK, now I should have the skills to sit down and write a publishable novel.” But I didn’t. It took another couple years of practicing and learning to get to the place where I am now. This, essentially, was Ryan Boudinot’s experience, too. So, I agree with him: becoming a writer takes a long time, and people don’t usually emerge from an MFA program ready to write a best-selling or prize-winning novel. But I can’t help wondering: couldn’t MFA programs help students out just a little bit more? There are a lot of things MFA programs could be teaching that they’re not.
But perhaps I had to focus on short stories first to hone my craft. Perhaps I wasn’t mature enough at twenty-five to start writing novels. Maybe my MFA Program gave me a place to grow up. Maybe I had to do all that learning later, on my own.
Ultimately, I think the best thing my MFA did for me was it became an announcement to the world that I am serious about writing. I spent money on this writing degree, and damn if I’m not going to put it to use! And this is where I disagree with Ryan Boudinot the most. He recommends that “anyone serious about writing books spend at least a few years keeping it secret.” But I only began to make real progress when I proclaimed to the world what my writing goals were. Now, I have no choice but to work my ass off until I reach them.