I Do, In Fact, Own a Crystal Ball

The internet writerly communities are currently talking about a piece in The Stranger by former MFA professor Ryan Boudinot in which he dishes out caustic observations about the general hopelessness of most MFA students. Normally, I’d ignore such a piece, but it seems to be getting traction and some of what Boudinot says I think crosses the line from being something I simply disagree with into being something that is actively harmful.  

The statement that jumped out at me as most needing correction is this one: “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.”

Um, no.

Seriously. Lots of writers who sell better than Ryan Boudinot didn’t get serious until they were fully grown adults, sometime well into middle age. Writers who have won major awards likewise didn’t take writing seriously as teenagers.

Oh, but the blogosphere says, maybe Boudinot means “took books seriously.” Well, still, no. I know several very accomplished writers who didn’t read — in fact, were barely literate — as teenagers. Not everyone has access to books as children. There’s nothing about a late start that precludes a person from developing into a very fine writer, even a bestseller.

But, of course, we don’t know what Boudinot even means by “make it.”

By “make it,” does he mean “become a famous bestseller”? If so, I’ll point out that Boudinot himself hasn’t made it. And J.K. Rowling never finished anything she had started writing until she was well out of her teens and a mommy to boot. Hard to define Rowling as someone who hasn’t “made it.”

Or by “make it,” does he mean “achieve critical and academic acclaim”? Well, Donald Ray Pollock isn’t exactly a household name, but his work is certainly respected in literary circles. He was a high-school dropout who didn’t get serious about writing until he was in his 50s.

Or by “make it,” does he mean “accomplish your personal writing goals”? To that end, lots and lots of people “make it,” and self-publishing is making it easier and easier to do so.

Boudinot’s fundamental problem throughout this piece is that he’s failing to define his terms. He starts off his list by saying, “Writers are born with talent.”

Well, O.K., but what is talent? Writing is a skill. Sure, as with most skills, it comes more easily for some than it does for others, but anyone can learn to write. And anyone can become the “Real Deal.”

How do I know writing is a skill and is learnable? Because I teach writing. I teach writing to a great many students who, frankly, have never given writing any thought. Many of them start out as truly terrible writers, the sort whose prose gets posted to Failbook. And quite a few of them after two semesters of practice are not only writing competently but also effectively. Now, either I’m the best damned teacher in the world, or even a person who starts out barely able put together a coherent sentence can learn if they put their mind to it. I tend to believe the latter. These are the students who decided they wanted to improve and worked hard. That’s not talent. That’s dedication. Any one of these students can go on to become the “Real Deal” if they keep at if after they’re done with their required writing classes.

Now, I’ll admit it takes time. Writing well enough to “make it” is not a skill that you’re going to learn only in one place and only at one time. The “Real Deal” is somebody who has learned a lot from a lot of different people and has also made some original connections on their own. If you’re slaving away and not “making it” (as not defined above), odds are good it’s because you’ve still got stuff to learn. Come to think of it, even if you are “making it,” you’ve still got stuff to learn. Hey, “Real Deal,” you’ve still got stuff to learn, too! Ryan Boudinot really should still be working on his craft.

Nobody can predict when someone is going to have the breakthrough that will take their writing to the next level. Not me. Not Ryan Boudinot. Anyone who says they can if full of shit. I do, in fact, own a crystal ball. It’s very pretty. It won’t tell me what the future holds for any writer, or even any class of writers generally. It’s simply not possible to predict.

What I do recommend? Keep trying.

I was one of those kids who was serious about writing when I was a teenager. The stuff I wrote was crap. It didn’t sell. I wandered off and tried other careers, and didn’t start writing prose fiction again until I was in my late 30s. (I wrote lots of other stuff, mostly nonfiction, in the interim.) I learned a lot in the almost-two-decades when I wasn’t writing the stuff I now write. I learned a lot after I got back to writing prose. I learned a lot after I started being able to sell my stories.

And I don’t always sell my stories. When I write stuff that doesn’t find an audience, I try again with something else.

And that’s what we do. We write, and we see if it works for readers. If not, we try another approach. If it does, we ask ourselves if we’ve “made it.”

Most of the writers I know who’ve “made it” would actually say that they haven’t. They always want to push themselves to the next level. And so they’re always reading, always trying new things.

Oh, yeah, reading? You totally need to be doing that. Lots of reading. Anything and everything. When something works for you, figure out why. When something doesn’t work for you, figure out why. And then figure out who it does work for. That’s how you’re going to learn to connect with a reader instead of writing just for yourself.

But, for the record, you can totally skip The Great Gatsby.


Comments are closed.