Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Professors Now That I No Longer Have One

On a cool summer day in 2008, I graduated from the University of Washington’s MFA program. I was one poet among eight in my cohort, a pretty competitive program when you take into account how many starry-eyed wannabe writers there are flocking to such programs offering professional creative writing instruction.

On graduation day my advisor, a Yale Younger Series winner and Stegner fellow, introduced me on stage before I was prompted to read a couple poems from my thesis. I’ll never forget what he said. “If there was a most improved award, it’d go to Jaimie.”

There was something endearing about this half-handed compliment. I worked hard, maybe harder than some of my peers, to produce hundreds of poems, which have since been banished to my filing cabinet.

Nonetheless, he knew through my incessant emails, fifty poem workshop submissions, and countless office hour visits that I was dedicated to the craft of poetry 1000%.

But I wasn’t a great poet. Not even a good one. And I knew it. I was the only student admitted to the program that year through the wait-list. I called the office every other day to ask, “How is the weather in Seattle?” followed by, “Any news for me about the wait-list?”

It’s not that I so wanted to go to the University of Washington. I had already been admitted to American University’s program in D.C., but the cost of that program was three times the amount of the tuition at UW.

Eventually I either hassled the department so much that they just let me in, or some more qualified candidate dropped out for a better, more well-funded opportunity. I quickly packed my bags, went to Rome as a mentor for UW’s summer creative writing program, and then moved from Florida to Seattle.

Like so many MFA students today, I went to UW without a tuition waiver or stipend. In addition to the generous donations from my family, I worked in retail, at an Irish pub, and Amazon.com to help support the cost of grad school. Also, like so many MFA students that have graduated, now that I am out of the MFA program, and academia, I have some perspective on my particular MFA program and the commodification of the MFA program in general.

The gist is that the MFA’s competitive environment sometimes led to hostility between students, professors often favored particular students (usually white males) and made it known, and sometimes money was unfairly distributed to students based on abstract qualifications. For example, I was awarded a $15,000 “minority” scholarship for reasons still unknown to me. (Is it because I am Jewish? Because I’m a woman? Because my last name sounds Hispanic?) The director of the program applied for the scholarship on my behalf.

In addition, there are such a small percentage of graduates who go on to have writing careers or stable, full-time teaching careers in academia that afford them to write that the idea that the MFA is a terminal degree seems antiquated, at best. Ask the thousands of adjuncts flooding the highways to run from one gig to another so they can teach at whatever university or community college that has an opening.

But students aren’t the only ones to air their MFA grievances or skepticism.

On Friday, February 27, 2015 former professor Ryan Boudinot wrote an article for the Seattle based newspaper, The Stranger, titled, “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One.” To save you the pain of reading the advice of the disgruntled prof., given under 8 confessional sub headings, I will give you the recap in two sentences:

First sentence: Ryan Boudinot, an obviously white male professor who taught at the graduate level for eight astounding years, tells you how much his students, with the exception of  the”Real Deal students” he could count “on one hand, with fingers to spare,” bored him almost to the point of quitting his job.

Second sentence: According to Boudinot, in order to be a “Real Deal” writer, you must be a young and nimble, white, male that will have read The Great Gatsby and other canonical books way before graduate school, like, in a 5th grade private school English class or in a high school AP English course.

I am admittedly making assumptions here about Boudinot’s own maleness and whiteness, and his claim that the only successful writers are those who come from privileged backgrounds, but if you read the article, you might agree with me that it’s hard to walk away with any other inference.

Regardless of my personal characterization of Boudinot, it seems pretty clear that he is exactly the kind of MFA writing teacher you’re glad you never had a class with.

With observations like “Some people have more talent than others” and “MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy” it’s no wonder this guy comes across as a miserable former MFA student himself who hasn’t quite learned the difference between mentor and just plain mean.

This may seem harsh. Maybe Boudinot had a really taxing eight years in the academy. Maybe the administration has gotten to him, or departmental politics has made him salty. Or, maybe, he’s just so uninspired by the same work turned in by his students year after year that he’d rather tell them to “give up and do something else.”

But even if I give him the benefit of the doubt–that he’s just a tired, overworked, and possibly under appreciated teacher trying to do good in the world– it’s hard to argue that someone who wishes that a student writing, even if in poorly constructed sentences, about his or her experience being abused as a child, should have “suffered more,” isn’t a complete ass.

That’s right. He said he had wished that one of his students who was writing a memoir about being abused as a child would have suffered more because of the student’s “inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences.”

I’d also like to point out that from his tone and pronoun usage, Bourdinot’s “Real Deal” students, the ones who don’t make him want to quit his job, are assumed to be males with a privileged background, like himself. References to “he” are given in explanations of students who show promise/have innate talent, while the she’s of the world are reading books “that don’t make me work so hard to understand the words.”

This kind of elitist, overtly sexist, judgment-making is exactly what authors like Junot Díaz have spoken out against, telling their own MFA experiences as a call for more diverse MFA programs. Not only are course materials in need of re-envisioning, apparently so are the instructors who teach them.

Instead of judging a student as to why he or she hasn’t read The Great Gatsby–a book that offers a criticism of social privilege and American excess–maybe you should ask why that student hasn’t read what you consider required reading (think about opportunity, much?) and why your privilege affords you to think that this student’s lack of Gatsby-knowledge is emblematic of someone who will never be a successful writer. This guy didn’t read Gatsby until he was 37, and he’s writing in The Atlantic, Slate, Salon, and The Village Voice. I would say that he’s pretty successful.

I could go on and on about how awful Boudinot’s article is, citing how his idea of rigor is not facing the real social, sexual, cultural, and racial injustices of American life, but rather it’s whether or not you can read titles like Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity’s Rainbow (all award-winning booking written by males) between semesters. But I won’t, because you can do that for yourself.

What I will point out is that this article is evidence of two other things: 1.) white male privilege is still alive, well, and applauded in the academy, and 2.) the commodification of MFA programs leaves an imbalance between sponge-like students who are willing to, even at the high price of $10K-$40K per year and sometimes from the depths of their own pockets, learn the craft of writing and jaded professors who think only a handful of students deserve to be in the program to begin with.

This past summer, Poets and Writers published an article called “The Problem of Entitlement: A Question of Respect” that claimed the problem with the MFA is that the students are entitled. The students are reading less, always on their smartphones, and think the fiction selections in the Best American Short Stories aren’t that captivating–author Steve Almond’s main complaint. But why? To quote one Goodreads reader (who happens to be the director of the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University, mind you), Sian Griffiths, “it struck me as a little too monoculture. I would have liked to see a greater assortment of stories from non-white authors.”

The problem, seems to me, to be that there is an opinion that the MFA has evolved into a vanity degree that no longer holds the weight that some are nostalgic for, mixed with the opinion that the digitalization of the 21st century has changed what’s considered “good” writing, blurring the boundaries that once put white male writers on a pedestal.

This leads professors like Boudinot to come off as messengers for the dooms day of the MFA, when in fact, these changes are emblematic of a social and political landscape we should all be paying attention to.  A landscape of inequality, where the stories we want to hear or need to hear, written by people of difference, aren’t being written for lack of encouragement and support.

My MFA days are long gone, but it’s still a degree I care about. Even if I don’t have a career in academia. Even if I haven’t been a traditionally “successful” writer (I’m 31, so I’ll never be the “Real Deal,” right Boudinot?).

The experience I had in my program gave me a unique perspective on my own writing and the writing of my generation. And as someone fresh out of adjuncting, I’m fortunate to have had the chance to listen to what the next generation of students think about literature, what kinds of stories represent their backgrounds, experiences, wishes, and fears.

I was that kid that didn’t read Gatsby until grad school. But I was also the only entering MFA student who could scan a line of Hopkins like a champ.

And even if my advisor was a bit paternal in his introduction for me during the MFA graduation ceremony, he was right. I worked hard, and got a lot better. Being most improved is nothing to be ashamed of.

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  • disqus_6ifxqvwzzY

    I was a poet long before I ever entered an MFA program. I am still a poet long after I have left all such programs. I, too, have worked hard, but not to please anyone but myself. Most of what I write is beyond the comprehension of the average reader, but that’s the way it goes. They know what they like, so who am I to say?

    • jaimiegusman

      I don’t know if taste is Bourdinot’s main issue here, but I think you do bring up how post-MFA students can continue to write even if they didn’t find their ideal audience in graduate school. And sometimes, like Peg above mentioned, not all writers write for the same reasons. Some do write for themselves, for therapeutic reasons, for their families, etc.

  • Andrew O. Dugas

    I enjoyed your response. Boudinot’s article is really generating a lot of conversation among my writer friends on Facebook, one of whom directed me to this post.

    I think you make many good points, but one thing I do not understand: Why do so many people take issue with his assertion that some writers are more talented than others? Do we not as a society take for granted that some people — athletes, musicians, actors, and so on — have more natural talent than others in the same field? Why would creative writing, of all things, be an exception?

    • Peg

      No one is taking issue that some writers are more talented, the issue is that he believes you are born talented and if you don’t have that talent, you should not be writing and that it begins and ends with that “Real Deal” talent.
      This is a problem for a few reasons:
      1) It assumes that all writers write for the same reason (they don’t).
      2) No one is born with talent to write.
      You may be born with creative genes or to be a good story teller, just as a musician might be born with the ability to hear pitch better or understand patterns more than the next baby, but you are not born a musician or a writer.
      Creating art requires a massive amount of energy and time to transfer what might come naturally into a finished product. If you don’t have that drive and commitment to do something with the innate ability you have, then the natural talent is useless.
      And while creativity cannot be taught, what makes a good story or song can be taught. Otherwise the whole point of “serious reading” would be moot.

      • jaimiegusman

        I agree with you, Peg, when you say “And while creativity cannot be taught, what makes a good story or song can be taught.” For me, the whole point of attending an MFA program is to learn craft, which is different than creativity or imaginative thinking, from a writers who are well-read, have experience in the field, and think they have something to teach writers who are beginning their careers,

        • Andrew O. Dugas

          With you on that. Craft is all.

      • Andrew O. Dugas

        Peg, I question if you read the original article. On the talent issue, he states up front that someone can, with effort and dedication, turn a small bit of innate talent into great success, and that someone with great innate talent can completely squander it. I don’t understand how you derive your #1 assumption from the article.

        As for his assertion that some people are born with more talent than others… Really? Isn’t this manifest in every endeavor in life? Some people are born athletes, other math geniuses, others musicians. You try to skirt the issue by saying “no one is born with talent to write” then immediately say, okay, maybe creative genes, and okay maybe being a good story teller. Like that is any different than being born with a talent to write.

        No one is contesting whether writing can be taught or not. That debate was not touched upon in the essay. I would say it’s like cooking. You can teach anyone to flip a burger. Preparing a seven-course meal worthy of a true gourmet might require something more than mere instruction.

        If anything, he supports the idea of applied effort and dedication regardless. It is his stated opinion (one that I do not entirely agree with) that one’s history of reading and writing is to a significant degree a measure of that effort and dedication. You say you want to write but you haven’t read books X, Y, or Z. He thinks The Great Gatsby should be on that list. We can argue about the list, and maybe if you have read all of Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood and John D. MacDonald, IMHO he might want to give you a pass on The Great Gatsby. But if you haven’t read anything and don’t read anything, then maybe he really can and should question your stated intent of becoming a writer.

        Look, I can get a hunk of marble and some chisels and mallets, but does that make me a sculptor? What if I don’t even bother to look at Michelangelo’s work or any other sculptor’s work? Their technique? How much “massive amount of energy and time” will it take for me, the man born with no talent and no real demonstrated interest in sculpting, to transfer that marble into a finished creative work?

        There is no doubt the guy is an asshole. Clearly, the students in even the lowest tier writing program will be better off without him. He has no heart, no bedside manner, no compassion.

        But that doesn’t mean his core assertions are completely wrong, either.

        • jaimiegusman

          I agree with you here, Andrew. His framing is wrong, but not his assertions. You have to read, that should be a given. If you are a Creative Writing MFA student who refuses to read, that’s obviously problematic, and it is imagine really frustrating for a professor (I’ve been there).

          I think what’s worth noting about the talent conversation is that yes, some people exhibit more “raw” talent than others in a variety of creative fields, but that doesn’t mean that only the ones with innate talent will be successful. You can’t get by on talent alone (if you’re lazy, disinterested, etc.). Sometimes it’s the person that puts in more effort that goes further, right? This is anecdotal, but, I can think of a handful of writers from my MFA program (not my year, but the years before and after) that really “made it” and most of them were the unsuspecting students – the ones without full funding, wining departmental awards, etc.

    • jaimiegusman

      Thanks, Andrew. Since the Boudinot article came out, the first issue I’ve heard addressed is whether or not he is at least right to think there is such a thing as innate talent. My take is that people have more problems with his treatment of those students he sees as having innate talent vs. the students that clearly (in his opinion) that don’t have innate talent.

      What boggles my mind is that in an MFA program students are selected, by a committee of that program’s professors, to attend based on qualifications that suggest the student has the potential (and yes, maybe talent, too) to be a writer that program can help grow through craft instruction, mentorship, and networking. Boudinot seems to be saying that through his years as a teacher, he has been appalled by the lack of students’ talent in his program – students he had a say in admitting, I gather (if Goddard works the same way as other programs). His tone suggests that it is a waste of time for the students who work hard and are without “innate” talent to continue to write. And it’s even more of a waste of time for Boudinot to be teaching those students.

      I think the question: is there such a thing as innate talent in creative writing? has generated lots of great conversations. I have writer friends that have been saying, yes, of course! And some that are on the fence. I think that if you get into an MFA program, someone obviously sees some sort of gift in your work, and for me, that’s enough to go on.

      I think the main point is that if you are a professor of creative writing, there must be some part of you that feels that writing can be taught to students both with or without what you feel is innate talent, creative genus, etc.

  • Rebecca Steinitz
    • jaimiegusman

      Hi Rebecca. Thanks for posting your response. I agree that his article was obviously mean. If I were a former student of his I would be crawling a hole right now. He obviously said some very unethical things that suggest he’s better off not teaching.

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  • James Bowman

    I had a different take on Boudinot’s essay, in that I thought rather than being elitist or male chauvinist or Euro-centric in cultural bias, he was expressing his disillusion and confusion at encountering so many students in a writing program who had no apparent love of reading and no apparent familiarity with many books of any type. When I took creative writing classes I was encouraged to read, read widely, read outside my comfort zone, and to keep a journal record of my thoughts about what I read. “Underline” and “write in the margins” were near sacrilege to me since most of my encounters with books as a child had been through books checked out of the public library, but I caught a clue that maybe I could riff on what I read. I thought Boudinot’s biggest disillusionment was with the programs within which he taught, not that his students lacked background or talent or dedication or “fire in the belly” but that perhaps he was complicit in defrauding them of money and life’s precious and limited commodity “time” while they sought a credential that might have no connection at all with their becoming productive writers in pursuit of their writing dreams.

    • jaimiegusman

      I think it’s fair to say that Boudinot is expressing his disillusion with his program and the students admitted for legitimate reasons (lack of desire to read, being the most legitimate in my mind), but, at the same time, isn’t he simultaneously being elitist by suggesting that students who aren’t familiar with or hungry for the types of books he deems worthy are unable to achieve “real deal” status?

      He says, “my best students were the ones who read the hardest books I could assign and asked for more” and “One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduate student!), told me she preferred to read books ‘that don’t make me work so hard to understand the words.'”

      His best students share his preference for the “hardest books” he can find, while the student that made him want to quit his job “on the spot” preferred books that were probably more mainstream fiction. And people who get MFA’s don’t always want to write literary fiction, right? And who is to say that goal is the wrong one for a particular student? You should be reading everything you can in grad school, and not just the easy stuff, I agree. But if you want to write, say, vampire novels or whatever because you enjoy reading them, then maybe it’s okay if you didn’t fall in love with Gatsby. It’s your job as the professor to point out why Gatsby is an important book, not the student’s job to just magically pick up on its merits.

      I think if Boudinot’s intention was to write an article about the shortcomings of MFA programs, it would have been a different article. And I think those articles are being written, some more nuanced than others. I guess my major point is that it’s not fair to blame students for the failures of the MFA. The commodification of the degree creates an entire web of problems, including the very important one you’re suggesting: why is the MFA valuable and who is it valuable to? An MFA is a money-making degree for universities. MFAs don’t have the same model they did 30 years ago. People dot only get MFAs to pursue a career in writing or academia anymore. I think if you fail to acknowledge those changes, it’s easy to make sweeping statements about students.

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  • Tiffany Lee Brown

    I thought the Bitter MFA Dude had some good reasons to feel angsty about MFA programs and such, but any interesting points he might’ve made were smunched under the weight of his pompous asshattery. My take on it is on PLAZM magazine’s Urbanhonking blog, at http://urbanhonking.com/plazm/2015/03/05/bitter-mfa-dude/ . It’s not as nice or considered as yours, but it might amuse you.

    • jaimiegusman

      Amused is an understatement – your piece is fantastic! I started laughing within the first five seconds of reading. Oh, and I love how you repeated, verbatim, what Bourdinot wrote under “No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.” If you can’t laugh at it, then I don’t know what. But I also think you’re right about him having some good reasons to be pissed. MFA programs, and low-residency or not, are in no way perfect, but his article was framed all wrong. (I think there should be more articles written about the real systemic problems.) And then, in the follow-up interview on The Stranger, he dug himself into a deeper hole by giving himself an self-indulgent PR-fest.

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  • disqus_SH5KmZKXiG

    Do you have any suggestions on how to get into UW’s MFA program? Did you have a certain GRE score or have a really strategic plan for your writing samples and letters of rec? I’m trying to apply this winter for next year and looking for any advice I can get!

    • jaimiegusman

      Well, it’s been many years since I’ve applied to MFA programs. But being on a graduate student acceptance committee at a university recently has given me some insight into what’s very important. Make sure you have strong letters of recommendation and a killer writing sample. You’re going to want a mentor to help you select your best pieces for your writing sample. Programs are looking for strong creative AND critical writing these days, so make sure if a critical writing sample is required, it’s just as strong as your creative sample. Your cover letter should show that you have interests that align with the particular program you’re applying to. I hope this little bit of advice helps & good luck!