Existential Angst and Taking Writing Seriously

About a week ago Ryan Boudinot published an article in The Stranger called Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. It’s been making the rounds of the blogosphere, and plenty of people have plenty to say about it. It’s an anti-inspiration article. And it’s helpful to consider it in context. Mr. Boudinot had just emerged from that particular kind of hell only a teacher of creative writing knows. A good teacher has the ability to ferret out the tiniest kernel of good writing, to focus on it, nurture it, and help it bloom. Sometimes the fruit of all that labor is turning a promising writer into an amazing writer. And sometimes it’s just turning a terrible writer into a passable writer. On a good day, this kind of work is its own reward*. But nobody has a good day every day.

And no doubt, it was a massive relief for him to take off that teacher hat and say the things a teacher can never say. Things like:

  • Writers are born with talent.
  • If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.
  • If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
  • If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
  • No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.
  • You don’t need my help to get published.

I’ve read some pretty execrable things in my time and thought to myself, “There is no way that I can even begin to help this writer improve.” I once spent hours on an email explaining to a young writer why I wasn’t going to review her book. In fact, I spent longer on that email than I would have on a review that trashed the book, because that book was godawful, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by saying, “Your book is godawful. No amount of workshopping will save this book.” I should have just stuck with the form letter, because this godawful writer has written ten more novels than I have, and she’s found a publisher who will print them. And at the end of the day, being a good writer isn’t the thing that gets you published. Ass in chair and persistence is.

I agreed with some of the points in the article, and its snarky tone was rather amusing. But I also knew it was a really horrible thing for me to read. Especially this bit, which really cut me to the quick:

If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. 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.

Inside every writer is that little niggling voice of self-doubt, that little voice that says, “What if I’m just a hack? Why bother? Maybe I should just take up accounting instead.” The difference between a writer and an aspiring writer is the ability to modulate that voice. Harnessed properly, that voice drives me to improve my craft. But left to its own devices, it grows into a monster that prevents me from picking up the pen at all.

Good writing is much harder to quantify than good accounting. It’s the subject of much debate in academic circles, and ultimately it’s a matter of personal taste. You don’t need an MFA to have an opinion about a book, or even to get one published. In fact, you don’t need to be a good writer for your book to sell like hotcakes. You just need to put your ass in your chair, to keep writing, and to find your audience.

Mr. Boudinot never told me I don’t take my writing seriously. He didn’t need to. My own little niggling voice of self-doubt did it for me. Because clearly, if I haven’t published The Great American Novel by now, I must not be taking my writing seriously. Never mind that I’m a poet and not a novelist. Never mind that I’ve been writing steadily since the age of 9, that I was the kind of kid who spent her afternoons in the library after school. Never mind that publication doesn’t necessarily correlate with “taking writing seriously.” If anything, I take writing too seriously. Sometimes I take it so seriously that it paralyzes me. Like so many writers before me, I’ll get ahead of myself and start thinking about my audience instead of focusing on the real reason why any of us write: for that fleeting, perfect moment of having written.

I woke up this morning with my usual fortnightly bout of existential angst. Any writer with her salt knows what I’m talking about. It goes something like this: Why bother trying to be a better poet when so few people even read the stuff? Maybe I should just try to be a fiction writer instead. Maybe I should write a memoir. Maybe I should just give the whole thing up and become an accountant. What on earth am I thinking trying to change careers at this point in my life? Why can’t I just be satisfied with what I have? Why is being a writer so important to me anyway? Am I just a hack? Am I just in denial about being a hack? Does any of this really matter? What is the point of existence? Do I even really exist? And who is this “I” who worries about whether or not I exist?

I can’t blame any of these thoughts — or the resulting angst — on Mr. Boudinot. Experience tells me that they will pass, and that my confidence will return. I’ll keep plugging along with my morning pages and my drafts and my submissions to literary magazines with tiny readerships. And I’ll do it for the best reason I can think of to keep writing: for that fleeting, perfect moment when I think I’m any good at it.



* Which is good, because the monetary rewards aren’t much.

Photo of broken pencil courtesy of Marle Coleman under Creative Commons license.

3 Replies to “Existential Angst and Taking Writing Seriously”

  1. Thanks for writing this post! You have spared me the effort of both reading this article (having seen it in bunch of places, I’d put it on my “get around to!” reading list) and writing my own response (as you’ve quite well summed up what I’d want to say!).

    One thing I’d add: I call as total bull-hockey the idea that no one who is a dedicated reader-and-writer from adolescence will develop “the neural architecture required” to write a book. My ex-husband, a composer who began playing piano at age 3, used to say the same thing about (and to!) his college students: anyone who hasn’t been playing seriously since ~age 12 has no hope of producing anything of value. While this argument *might* hold some water for music (tho’ I suspect my ex said it more bc he was an ass than out of human concern; maybe the same goes for Mr. Boudinot?), it’s hogwash when talking about using words and telling stories. Which we are all doing all the time! Even if not in print, even if not for broader audiences — barring physical damage or neurological differences, *everyone* has the requisite “architecture” in their brains to write something that *someone* will want to read!!

    Phew. Okay [/soapbox]. 🙂

  2. Thanks for getting up on your soapbox, Alice. Lots of the newer research suggests that the human brain is more malleable than we think it is. I think the article was a sort of release valve for its author. He got to say all the things a teacher can’t say. Sort of like someone who gives up chocolate for Lent and then eats an entire Easter Basket when it’s over.

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