An open letter to unfortunate memoir writers who read that ex-MFA professor’s essay

GAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH.

That’s the sound of my knickers getting in a knot and steam pouring from my ears, but all silently, because I’m reserved like that.

My fingers, however, are itchy with the need to comment on an article I was not going to read, but which I now have read because it’s flooded my Facebook feed.

Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One” is a jaunty, hard-hitting take on MFA students in Seattle’s free weekly, by Ryan Boudinot, who may or may not be a terrible person, although I am concerned about him.

OK. You’ve read it?

My disclaimers

There are many things to be said about the essay. I’m not going to tackle it paragraph by paragraph, because those responses are cropping up like crocuses in post-global-warming January. Chuck Wendig wrote an especially good response on Terrible Minds. Laura Valeri wrote another, aimed more at heartening teachers, titled “Those Who Teach, Can.”

Note, I’m not even arguing Boudinot’s points. He holds to a particular view of writing, the view we probably learned in English class, that writers must be born with a natural talent, that if you miss the boat young you’re SOL, that only certain books are worth reading. Fine. Whatever. He certainly is in the position to have insight into the flaws of an MFA program—something I’m in no position to comment on, having no MFA myself.

The nitty-gritty

I’m here only to address Boudinot’s paragraph on memoir, which makes me nauseous. He writes:

No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.

I worked with a number of students writing memoirs. One of my Real Deal students wrote a memoir that actually made me cry. He was a rare exception. For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. 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.

Oh, where to begin?

First, let’s get this out of the way. Even if you ARE a shitty writer, someone probably cares about your problems. Your mom. Your best friend. Your spouse. Your cat. (OK, not your cat. Your dog.) But this is merely imprecise writing on Boudinot’s part—I think he means readers won’t care, so let’s move on.

Second, candor (or “supposed candor”) and verb tense are hardly equivalent, but fine.

But “your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more”?

Really?

He’s saying, If your writing is shitty, someone should have abused you MORE than they did.

Now that’s an ideal reader! (And a person eminently suited to heading a city’s literature program, as Boudinot does.)

Why does he say this?

As far as I can tell, Boudinot writes short stories and novels. It’s fair enough for a fiction writer to critique memoir, because the two genres can and do learn a lot from each other, and successful writing is successful writing, no matter its category.

But he’s implying that most memoir writers—and he’s calling out memoirists specifically—blithely pump out dreck and play the bleeding heart card to excuse themselves. Not some of them. Most of them, at least in MFA programs.

Writing memoir is a difficult proposition. Writing good memoir, of course, is even harder. Writing memoir makes the many layers in the human brain wrinkle and crawl and turn in crazy spirals, working to combine all the elements of craft with elements of memory, research, and the painful, exhilarating, distracting, unavoidable human element of—gasp—real emotion. Or maybe that’s just me.

I draw the line, though, at fiction writers assuming they understand what is happening in the mind of a memoirist (Boudinot: “They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe …”), because until you have written memoir, you can’t understand how slippery and agonizing it is, beyond the questions of “making it good enough” that challenge all serious writers.

Memoirists must confront their own pasts while simultaneously trying to craft art from the past. So often, people criticize memoirists, as Boudinot does, for using writing as therapy. (In my experience, these are often people who do not read memoir, though I can’t speak for Boudinot.) It’s true that confronting the past can have a therapeutic outcome. (And sometimes, revisiting the past drives the writer to therapy.) But this is simply a side effect. It’s equally true that the resulting book cannot be about therapy, or it will be useful to no one, neither art nor boon.

(Fiction writers, of course, aren’t immune to using writing as therapy. I’ve read stories that are clearly about working through an old relationship, for instance, which I think is a valid starting point, although neither does this make for good fiction without craft.)

I read a great observation recently, that memoirists write about the people they love. This idea resonates whether the characters are parents (abusive or not), a spouse, a friend, a lover. We love or did love, and we want to understand. It’s hard, hard work to transform questions—about the core of who you are, why you made the decisions you made, what made you a flawed person—into art.

Just to clarify, I’m not saying memoirists should be given a pass on quality because they write about personal experiences. Good writing is good writing (although the definition of “good” is more debatable, I think, than Boudinot makes it seem). When I’ve heard that my work is not there yet, it’s painful, and true, and it means I need to keep working.

But look at his last sentence. He wishes you had suffered more. 

I am absolutely, 100 percent sure about one thing, and that is this:

NO ONE HAS THE RIGHT TO WISH SUFFERING ON ANOTHER PERSON BECAUSE THEY SUCCUMBED TO AN IMPULSE TO WRITE. Least of all another writer. Least of all a teacher.

I want to write this article off, saying Boudinot is a bad person and no one should pay attention to him, but here I am. I like to believe the best of people, and so I can imagine that he was trying to be funny and incisive and provocative, and The Stranger finds provocation to be good click-bait.

Yet I’m vulnerable to his carping because I’m writing a memoir.

It’s easy to feel like an asshole when you write at length about yourself. It’s natural for ugly voices to bubble up within, asking Who do you think you are? and What the fuck makes you so goddamn interesting that anyone will want to read a whole book about you?

I pretend to laugh it off (spoiler: my book’s title is NOT actually Me! Me! Me! A Love Story), but really? I’m just fucking trying. Just like everyone else.

And so, dear memoirists, whether you’re among my treasured friends or whether you’re a stranger, whether you’re penning a future classic or simply feeling the urge to get down your story for your kids, whether your writing is good or not there yet, you do not deserve more suffering. No one deserves to suffer, and no one deserves to have it wished on them.

So, bless you.

Bless you for sitting down and trying. Bless you for engaging in exhausting struggle for the benefit of art, for the benefit of others who are going through it, for the benefit of your own precious soul. Bless you for caring. Bless you for your strength and your tenderness and your valor. Bless you for the trying.

 

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3 Comments

  1. The part about wishing more suffering on these writers is inexcusable. Why doesn’t the free Seattle weekly have higher editorial standards?

    • amblog
      March 3
      Reply

      Good question! There’s provocative, and then there’s just ugly.

  2. […] same as crafting a work of art based in experience. I don’t want anyone to think I’m pulling a Boudinot—or really, a purported B’s student—by conflating the […]

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