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Writers Are Born with Talent, and Other Nonsense

32500949_3a2c1b8d79[1]All those authors who didn’t get their start until later in life are no-talent hacks who are just wasting their time.

That’s the opinion of Ryan Boudinot, who just left a position as a teacher in an MFA program. He posted a piece  on The Stranger on Friday in which he revealed just how much he hates his former students.

According to Boudinot, there are certain people who meet his standards for being a writer, and woe be unto you if you try to go against his wishes. For example, if you’re not already a talented writer when you enter his program, you should just give up and go away. There’s no hope for you.

It’s simply that writers are not all born equal. The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

And if you should happen to grow up poor or otherwise disadvantaged,  or for some other reason wait to try to become a writer until your adult years, Boudinot thinks you shouldn’t even bother. You’re going to fail:

But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late. Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.

And that’s not the only reason Boudinot thinks you should give up without making the attempt. If you don’t inhale the most difficult books then he doesn’t think you’re worth reading:

Without exception, my best students were the ones who read the hardest books I could assign and asked for more. One student, having finished his assigned books early, asked me to assign him three big novels for the period between semesters. Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity’s Rainbow, I told him, almost as a joke. He read all three and submitted an extra-credit essay, too. That guy was the Real Deal.

God forbid you should be dependent on your local public library for reading material; my library had only two of the three titles mentioned, so clearly no poor person in my area has a shot at meeting Boudinot’s standards.

What a snob.

Update: Out of curiosity, I found the 3 books mentioned above, and requested them at my library. One title, Infinite Jest, was available as an ebook so I got it and read it. This is a book which everyone should read, if only to learn how not to write a sentence, how to screw up pacing, and how the literary establishment doesn’t know what it is talking about.

What a fool.

image by John Althouse Cohen

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Greg Stranberg March 1, 2015 um 12:37 pm

He’s got a few books out, and I suppose that’s due to all the time he had to spend teaching. Covers are horrendous and the books are only in print format.

This man has nothing to teach me.

Nate Hoffelder March 1, 2015 um 1:16 pm

Actually, a couple titles are available as Kindle ebooks.

But did you check out the reviews? The reviewers don’t think he’s a very good writer. How fitting, LOL.

William D. O’Neil March 1, 2015 um 4:53 pm

To be fair, his latest, Blueprints of the Afterlife, gets generally good customer reviews as well as critical reviews. It is available in Kindle for $9.99, but if I were at all interested (which I’m not, having had my fill of haute literateurs) I’d be more tempted by the nice selection of used paperbacks at $0.01. Good luck with those Kindles, Ryan.

Sharon Sala March 1, 2015 um 4:00 pm

Someone mentioned the other day how hurtful words and negative response to something they enjoyed doing had stopped them from moving forward – actually stopped them from continuing something they loved, something they were good at and wanted to pursue.
When I read that I was stunned. I could not imagine the depth of that kind of pain and disappointment. I’m the kind of person that, when someone tells me I can’t do that right, or I don’t know what I’m doing, I will spend the rest of my life proving them wrong. I will do whatever I have to do to learn and make it work. But that’s just me, We all have different personalities and we all have a breaking point. You all know mine. Little Mama is my breaking point. Her slow deterioration into madness has brought me to my knees, so I understand how a person can be felled by disdain or disappointment. I want you to know that if you recognize yourself in this description, my heart goes out to you.
No one should be belittled. No one should have their dreams crushed. And the people you depend upon most for love and protection should not be the ones to bring you down.
So what does a person do in an instance like that? Will you let someone else’s opinion stop you from what you came here to do? Are you going to quit the one thing that gave you joy just because someone saw skill in your work, and spoke harshly out of envy?
I’ll tell you something that I’ve said to beginning writers for over 24 years. If you do not FIRST believe in yourself, then no one else will either. If you do not believe you can do it, then you won’t. The End.
And here’s another thing that you have to take into consideration. So what if you’re not the best in the world at what you love? You are fulfilling a joyous part of yourself by doing it anyway. Did you ever stand by someone in church during singing and hear every other note they sang was off key? But did you see the look of bliss on their face? See their head tilted back, their eyes half-closed from the joy of music? They don’t hear what’s wrong. They are lost in the joy of the words and the music. They are doing what’s right – for them.
So if you have a dream you let die, or stopped something you were doing because of someone else’s opinion, you are cheating yourself. You gave up YOUR power to someone else. Don’t do that. That which you stopped doing was what was filling you up. Sometimes you have to get past the pain you’re holding onto before you can regain your sense of self.
It’s your life.
Give yourself permission to be happy.
Forget perfection.
Instead seek joy.

Nate Hoffelder March 1, 2015 um 5:19 pm

I don’t see myself in it. What I see is an ivory tower intellectual who is cavalierly dismissing some amazing authors.

Moriah Jovan March 1, 2015 um 5:34 pm

Stereotypes exist for a reason. This guy is a walking, talking, un-ironic stereotype.

He needs to get laid.

Tonya Moore March 1, 2015 um 5:55 pm

There will always be people like him, people who have to tear down others in order to feel good about themselves. It’s pitiful and abhorrent but hey, why even waste the energy holding it against him? The man is entitled to his ignorance. The ones I feel sorry for are those who had the misfortune of being "taught" by such an individual.

Welcome to | Nate Hoffelder Takes a Literary Snob to Task March 1, 2015 um 11:57 pm

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Sharon Reamer March 2, 2015 um 4:54 am

I had the same response to Infinite Jest that I had to eating lobster with an oncoming bout of stomach flu. Needless to say, I haven’t had lobster since.

I much prefer things that are satisfying and keep me returning – a perfectly cooked hamburger with all the fixin’s, homemade pizza, spaghetti pomodoro. Simple fare but great – thoughtful SF, imaginative fantasy, cozy mysteries with intriguing characters. And reading those things is supposed to make me not 'the Real Deal' as a writer? Okay, fine.

One man’s literary lobster is another woman’s experience of stomach flu .

Nate Hoffelder March 2, 2015 um 8:55 am

I like sophisticated books. I like books which explore complex ideas. But I don’t like books which break basic technical rules on sentence construction.

Vonda Z March 2, 2015 um 10:18 am

Infinite Jest does have sentences that go on literally for pages, so that when the sentence finally ends, I have forgotten how it began, and no longer care. I read that book to see what the hype was about. I cursed that decision most of the way through. By the end, I finally began to see how the whole thing connected together and I realized that in order to appreciate the book, I would have to read it again, knowing what I know now. I probably will never do that. There is a part of me that believes the Infinite Jest is the book itself – that a small group of intellectuals decided to lavish the book with praise as a joke to see how many people would jump on the band wagon. No one wants to declare that the Emperor has no clothes. Or maybe my literary tastes are just too pedestrian. Who knows?

That said, I read Gravity’s Rainbow twice in my 20’s. I didn’t get it either time. I just won’t do Pynchon anymore. I accept my literary limitations.

Never heard of 2666.

Felipe Adan Lerma March 2, 2015 um 7:15 am

I was amazed at the definitive snobbery in Ryan’s post.

Glad it’s getting multiple responses like this one. Another is from Chuck Wendig at :

Nate Hoffelder March 2, 2015 um 7:34 am

Chuck is fun at times, but I decline to get angry about this snob. He’s just not worth the emotional investment.

Coral March 2, 2015 um 9:56 am

So fine diss the professor, BUT not the cult classics like Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow just because you don’t get it.

I understand these books are difficult to read but when I took on the reading challenge of actually READING the 50 books listed as essential cult novels this year my life was changed. My view of what writing could accomplish, how you can interact with language and what you could express through the written word was expanded. Granted I’ve only moved a couple to my all-time favorite read list but I admire what those writers tried to accomplish.

If all you are interested in is entertaining the masses and keeping them sedated and happy then you are selling yourself short as a writer. Or you’re only interested in what you can sell, not in what you can create.

I want something that pushes the boundaries as a reader, makes me think, makes me react, makes me see something differently. Some of those cult classics do that and Infinite Jest did. You should probably read some background into that story and it’s setup. It will help you when reading it.

Nate Hoffelder March 2, 2015 um 10:40 am

I like complex books and I like books that make me think. However, infinity jest was either badly written or badly edited. The sentence which made me give up on the book was 89 words long:

Uncle Charles is saying that though he can anticipate that the Deans might be predisposed to weigh what he avers as coming from his possible appearance as a kind of cheerleader for ETA, he can assure the assembled Deans that all this is true, and that the Academy has presently in residence no fewer than a third of the continent’s top thirty juniors, in age brackets all across the board, and that I here, who go by 'Hal', usually, am 'right up there among the very cream'.

That sentence should never have been published. It should be printed on a placard and hung in the offices of writers and editors as an example of how not to write.

That is my objection to Infinty Jest.

Felipe Adan Lerma March 2, 2015 um 10:59 am

I can definitely see the problem, or challenge, understanding it, but to say it should not have been written. No, sorry. When we start curtailing our creative freedom, even if only a handful of folk appreciate the more esoteric expressions, than we’re down a path I personally wouldn’t like see happen.

Nate Hoffelder March 2, 2015 um 11:13 am

I think you misunderstand my point, Felipe. We’re having a technical discussion among writers. I’m not curtailing his freedoms; that is not within my powers.

What I am saying is on the level of not wanting to see typos or context/continuity errors. That sentence is not an esoteric expression so much as it is an example of bad writing. It is incoherent.

Will Entrekin March 2, 2015 um 11:35 am

I understood it okay. You could argue that "presently" should be "currently," but I don’t think that’s actually an error; I think Uncle Charles used the wrong word (as is being relayed by Hal).

Felipe Adan Lerma March 2, 2015 um 12:00 pm

I gotcha Nate.

It helps clarify my point to myself as well.

First, I’m only applying this to fiction, particularly my own, though I see plenty of examples in other authors' writings.

I’ve seen and personally experienced (among a lot of very positive receptions) a range of reactions to what a few readers considered typos or context/continuity errors: the use or non-use (both!) of commas, periods, short sentences, creative use of made up words, pov changes, scene changes, chapter lengths. Many of the latter falling into very strongly held continuity standards a reader thought were absolutely mandatory.

I’d read the sample paragraph earlier and "mostly" understood it, I think 🙂 and just now re-read it, and understand it a little better. So it takes me some effort. But I don’t think it shouldn’t have not been printed.

Some people hate Chandler and Hemingway (I love both). Too short. Choppy. No noun and verb in each sentence. Some people hate Joyce and Fitzgerald and Pynchon (and I only really like F. Scott of the three, or Joyce in snippets).

In fiction, like music and theatre and art and dance, expressive freedom includes the technical. Some, for me, is too boring or convoluted or obtuse for me to follow or care for. But I’d never want to be in favor of curtailing their expression.

Conversation-comment writing, plus formal writing, I do feel we need a common ground to communicate by. But not rigidly so, via enforced use or non-use of commas, etc.

Otherwise, we probably couldn’t have this, in my opinion, very valuable exchange of ideas.

Moriah Jovan March 2, 2015 um 12:41 pm

That sentence is not an esoteric expression so much as it is an example of bad writing. It is incoherent.

I read it as avant-garde, which I have been coming to appreciate more as of the last couple of years and more trips to the art gallery.

It doesn’t make other people’s opinions invalid because it is subjective, but I can see (even in that snip) that it’s deliberate and for a purpose.

Since I haven’t read the book and likely won’t, I don’t know what it is and I can’t say I’d like it. But I don’t have a problem with the passage *as I read it*.

Nate Hoffelder March 2, 2015 um 3:45 pm

Okay. I, for one, have no interest in acquiring that taste.

Nate Hoffelder March 2, 2015 um 4:52 pm


Coral March 8, 2015 um 5:11 pm

I read it, I get it, I will recommend Infinite Jest to those that can handle it.

Vonda Z March 2, 2015 um 10:25 am

So this is what I get from what he wrote: "The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one." In other words, I can’t teach you a thing. You either can write or you can’t before you ever get here. You don’t need my class and I don’t need to be here.

Moriah Jovan March 2, 2015 um 12:45 pm

In other words, I can’t teach you a thing. You either can write or you can’t before you ever get here. You don’t need my class and I don’t need to be here.

I actually had a creative writing professor tell me that. It was a senior-level class I had to have for my degree. Auto-A and he requested I attend just to give him something good to read.

BUT. He also knew I’d worked for that for years before I landed in his class, up to and including being very well read.

Coral March 8, 2015 um 5:15 pm

Oh I also agreed with your above comment but couldn’t reply to that one.

Coral March 8, 2015 um 5:13 pm

Masters classes are all set up that way no matter what the subject. When I attended mine for teaching I got straight As. I’ve never gotten straight As. Low and behold everyone got straight As.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) March 2, 2015 um 11:49 am

Ha-hahaha. I think it’s funny. There are many many jobs/experts that don’t hit their stride until they are in their 30s and 40s and have lived a bit. Some of them may have been playing music all along, some may have been coding all along, some may have been wandering in and out of various careers. You can be a genius young at many tasks, but it takes experience and work to make talent into something worthwhile. It can take years of living to know who you are and who you want to be. Being a writer, a musician, a leader or an inventor is so much more than raw talent.

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