by E. T. Moreno
I recently left a teaching position in a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program. I had a handful of students whose work sounded like something I myself might write. The vast majority, unfortunately, were literally not me. (And yes, I did just use the word “literally” in 2015, outside the context of a marketing meeting—even though I’m a Great Writer.) Here are some things I learned from these experiences.
Writers are born with talent.
I know this because I was there, in the delivery room, when each of my students was born. I easily recognized the ones who were destined to write memoirs that would make me cry, because they popped out within the first two hours of labor, holding first edition hardcovers of Pynchon novels, using umbilical cords for bookmarks.
If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.
Talent is baked in, hardwired, God-given—if the Fates didn’t see fit to bless you with lyrical skillz like mine while you were in the womb, chances are you did something really bad in a previous lifetime. The gods may also see fit to curse you with being nonwhite or female. They may place you in a poverty-stricken home or stick you with uneducated parents; they may subject you to war, abuse, or ill health. Don’t try to write about it past age 19. If you deserved better, you would know by the time you hit high school.
Conversely, if you did take writing seriously as a teenager, you have probably made it by now. This is why we have so many successful, full-time literary authors in America. Every single one of those teenagers who adored writing and dragged a notebook with them everywhere is now a household name and literary rock star. Just like me.
If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
I went to a low-residency MFA program and later taught at one. “Low-residency” means I spent a couple intense weeks in face-to-face workshops with my students, and spent the rest of the semester critiquing their work via carrier pigeon. My experience tells me that MFA programs attract people who have no business picking up a pen (much less a cool vintage typewriter): People who insist on doing an unsavory activity they call “working,” parents with small children who invariably contract inconvenient illnesses that disturb the semester’s schedule, spouses of soldiers whose unpredictable deployments wreak havoc on proper writing rituals, and cranky middle-agers endeavoring in the all-consuming work known as “caregiving” for a distasteful class of humans called “the elderly.”
On a related note: Students who ask if they’re “real writers” are obviously poseurs or they wouldn’t have to ask. A real writer is born confident, with the knowledge that his voice will be heard and listened to by others, given the privilege of his birthright. All around him, his culture has taught him since Day One that his is a point of view everyone else should listen to; after all, most of the experts, famous authors, scientists, etcetera he reads about or sees giving speeches look and sound remarkably like him. If you’re not born with a lightning-shaped scar on your forehead, don’t enroll in Hogwarts! Put that wand down, you Mudblooded poltroon!
If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
Without exception, my best students read the hardest books I assigned and asked for more, often after pulling down their pants to expose their buttocks and asking, “Please, sir, may I have another?” One student finished his assigned books early. I assigned him several long books written by clever guys whose protagonists faced the same life issues as I did, and who told their stories in narrative styles that felt relevant to me. Unlike my whinier students, this guy didn’t waste his time volunteering for charity, changing diapers, going to medical appointments, having relationships, helping friends, building things with his bare hands, growing his own food, swabbing out bedpans—whatever it is, exactly, that bad writers do when they’re not reading Carver and DeLillo. He had time to submit an extra-credit essay, too. That guy was the Real Deal.
Conversely, I’ve had students say they weren’t into “the classics” as if “the classics” was some single, aesthetically consistent edifice of a reading list, dominated by upper- and middle-class, white, male authors with access to education, connections, and platforms for their ideas. It’s inconceivable how my students got that idea. One student even admitted she didn’t like The Great Gatsby. I almost quit my job on the spot. (Luckily for my students, I hung on for a few more years.)
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.
You don’t need my help to get published.
All you really need is a self-publishing platform, a couple thousand dollars to pay someone to format your book properly, maybe a thousand for a copyeditor, assuming you can’t find one who wants to do it “for the exposure.” In addition, you’ll need an extra 30-80 hours a week for publicizing yourself via social media, booking radio interviews, and scraping for attention on blogs. You can also wander aimlessly the Internet, looking for an independent editor, book doctor, or writing coach, praying you happen to find the right one. You don’t need my help for any of that, though I do know a thing or two about being an Internet troll.
It’s not important that people think you’re smart.
Writing that’s motivated by the desire to give the reader a pleasurable experience is better than writing that tries to make the author sound smart and edgy. For example, if I write something dismissive, intolerant, and petty about writing students, it will make people everywhere feel happy and inspired. Writing for my classes is not about you, your pleasure, or your process. It’s about the reader: Me. I told a few students over the years that their only job was to keep me entertained, and the ones who got it started to enjoy themselves, and the work got better. You should put your ego on the back burner and focus on giving me a wonderful experience. (I’m always trying to explain that to my girlfriends, too.)
It’s important to woodshed.
Students are invariably disappointed to learn that becoming a certified RealDeal™ Writer requires locking oneself alone in an ivory tower or mouldy garret. Just as Dickenson, Wilde, Joyce, Hemingway, Austen, Byron, Woolf, Bishop, Lowell, Beckett, Hardy, Colette, Miller, Nin, Vonnegut, Flaubert, Molière, and St. Paul of Tarsus eschewed epistolary communication with other humans, so too should you avoid the Interwebs. If you’re able to continue writing while embracing the assumption that no one will ever read your work, it will reward you in ways you never imagined. If you’re lucky, you may even end up writing clickbait for an alternative weekly.
Epiphany T. Moreno received the Pretentious Git Prize for Literature for her promisingly quirky debut novel in 2004. Her authority goes unquestioned.
This post was written in response to that Bitter MFA Dude’s recent piece in The Stranger.
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