CK: writing and the importance of self-awareness

A while ago, a friend of a Facebook friend shared this article from The Stranger, which was written by a former professor at her M.F.A. program at Goddard College. Along with it she posted some interesting examples of the writer’s general douchebaggery as a teacher, one of which included suggesting that she might require emotional assistance, when she asked about the difference between judging creative vs. academic work.

There is a great response to the article here, which I feel touches on a lot of really great points, namely, the subjectivity that goes into writing, and judging the merit of various works. Of course, I’ve never taught creative writing, however, I did major in creative writing as an undergrad, and I wanted to take a moment to respond here from that perspective.

First off, if you didn’t read the article, here’s the takeaway: Ryan Boudinot is a privileged asshole. The things he “learned” are as followed:

  • Writers are born with talent
  • If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it
  • If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out
  • If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write
  • No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer
  • You don’t need my help to get published
  • It’s not important that people think you’re smart
  • It’s important to woodshed.

Now, I’m not saying that the things that Boudinot is pointing out here aren’t valid concerns. Again, having studied creative writing, I’ve seen plenty of students who choose to study creative writing for all the wrong reasons, and given that he is talking about graduate students some of these points can indeed be cause for concern. But ultimately, I think Boudinot observes the right things and draws the wrong conclusions. As Valeri points out in her response, saying that only the students who come into a program already prepared for success are capable of actually succeeding the in the long run is to miss the point of teaching entirely.

Every creative writing class, like every class in every other subject that has ever been taught formally or informally, invariably contains students whose individual levels of talent and preparation will span across a wide spectrum. Yes, there are the rare students who come in already knowing what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and who have known these things since they were quite young. And yes, sometimes there are students who simply won’t make it, whether it’s because their previous education didn’t prepare them properly, or because their heart simply isn’t “in it.” But the thing that really separates the “great” writers from all average ones out there, is not how well-prepared the writer is, or how interested they are in reading, but the ability, and the willingness to be self-aware and self-critical. Which is interesting because Boudinot is clearly neither of those things.

For me, one of the most frustrating things about sitting through any creative writing class is the peer-workshop. I say this, as someone who loves peer workshops, and loves taking creative writing classes. However, the peer workshop is inherently flawed. It is wholly dependent on the writer a) being able to take criticism and b) respecting their peers opinions enough to actually use that criticism in a way that is productive. If you had a room full of successful and experience authors, the peer workshop would be a dream come true for everyone. The problem is that creative writing classes are typically, full of potentially successful, but highly inexperienced authors, and nobody seems to think it’s important to teach them that whether or not they think other people’s opinions are important, other people’s opinions are at minimum, worth hearing.

And this problem is exacerbated often by the types of people who enroll in creative writing classes and consider themselves “authors.” Too often, they’re the people who are exactly like Boudinot — the people who go in believe that they alone are capable of succeeding, the ones who look down on those around them. That, or they’re the ones who believe that to change their story according to the opinions of others would be disingenuous to their art. It happens, because it is too easy to consider yourself an “author” or a “writer”. Everyone, whether or not they consider themselves a writer or an author, has a story to tell, and everyone believes their own story is the most important one their is. That’s fine. That’s normal. Part of being a person, is being the center of your own story.

But being an author, or at least being a good author has to take more effort than simply writing down your own story and giving it to people as if it were the truth. That type of writing is easy, but it’s also the type of writing to too often creeps into the self-indulgent or the self-congratulatory. And in the creative writing class, too often, that is the type of writing that proliferates. Teaching students not to write in a vaccuum isn’t about ignorance, or laziness as Boudinot implies. It’s really about teaching young writers to look outside themselves, become self-aware, and in the process of becoming better writers, also becoming better people.

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