Yes, I have seen. I suppose you would like to know what I think about it.
My response to this is, if you don’t love what you do, don’t teach it. I am tempted to leave it at that, but let’s do a very quick rundown of his points.
1. Writers are born with talent.
That’s debatable at best. How do you measure talent? How do you recognize it? There once was a violin teacher famous for producing child virtuosos. They asked him how he did it, and he said that if you take a child when he or she are three years old and make them practice four hours a day every day, any child would become a gifted musician.
There is such a thing as natural predisposition toward music or racing cars or writing, for example. I can see evidence of it in my children. But are my kids good writers because my husband and I passed on some sort of special magical genes or is it because they read in a large volume? Kid 2 at one point went through 7-8 books a week. She didn’t like her school, so she read. Kid 1’s Kindle bill makes me very happy as well. My kids are actively working at becoming better writers by ripping through books. That counts more than some nebulous talent.
2. If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.
This is nonsense. Here: http://flavorwire.com/349249/10-great-literary-late-bloomers. I tried to write early. My first Russian novel was awful. I wrote it on a typewriter one summer because I was bored. But my writing ability was never seen by my school or my parents as something special. They were more concerned with my ability to find out precise angle of a triangle given a set of certain values. As a result of this stance, I never took writing seriously. I didn’t start writing again until I was in my twenties. Quite a few of successful writers I know came to it later in life. We had careers and day jobs.
3. If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
You have to read a lot and widely to become a good writer, so this seems like a good point, until you read the text of the article. By “serious” reader, the author means reader who reads “difficult” books.
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.
Conversely, I’ve had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or—without a trace of embarrassment—say they weren’t into “the classics” as if “the classics” was some single, aesthetically consistent genre. Students who claimed to enjoy “all sorts” of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. 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.” I almost quit my job on the spot.
This is also nonsense. Elitist nonsense, which is infinitely worse. We write what we like to read. Again, we write what we like to read. If you wrote a mystery, chances are it’s because you enjoyed reading mysteries.That’s why people who try to jump genre following market trends usually fail.
We read to learn two things: how to develop a style by putting the right words together and how to create an emotionally powerful story. “Classical” literature tends to tell stories that were vitally important to the writer’s contemporaries in a style particular to that time period. We read them for general education and storytelling, but they are not exactly a good tool to becoming an effective writer. Here is why.
While, in the pursuit of their daring plans of annoyance, the restless enterprise of the French even attempted the distant and difficult gorges of the Alleghany, it may easily be imagined that their proverbial acuteness would not overlook the natural advantages of the district we have just described. It became, emphatically, the bloody arena, in which most of the battles for the mastery of the colonies were contested. Forts were erected at the different points that commanded the facilities of the route, and were taken and retaken, razed and rebuilt, as victory alighted on the hostile banners. While the husbandman shrank back from the dangerous passes, within the safer boundaries of the more ancient settlements, armies larger than those that had often disposed of the scepters of the mother countries, were seen to bury themselves in these forests, whence they rarely returned but in skeleton bands, that were haggard with care or dejected by defeat. Though the arts of peace were unknown to this fatal region, its forests were alive with men; its shades and glens rang with the sounds of martial music, and the echoes of its mountains threw back the laugh, or repeated the wanton cry, of many a gallant and reckless youth, as he hurried by them, in the noontide of his spirits, to slumber in a long night of forgetfulness.
The Last of the Mohicans
Emulate Cooper, and I guarantee you will not be published today. Books are products of their times. This book was written in a time when wealthy had a lot of leisure. It is confusing, overblown with purple prose, and is filled with sappy racist romanticism.
Let’s take Great Gatsby. Kid 1’s reading of Great Gatsby required a summary. One of the chapters was summarized as “Gatsby is very wealthy.” This summary was accurate, because seven pages were spent on describing Gatsby’s wealth. We live in the twenty first century. We must strive to be relevant and accessible to our audience, or we will be left behind.
I haven’t gone through an MFA program, but it seems to me that the object of it is to make one a better writer, not force feed them a literary smorgasbord of days past. We have English Literature 101 for that.
4. No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.
This paragraph is spent expressing the teacher’s contempt for his students who chose to write memoirs. It has no value and we shall skip it.
5. You don’t need my help to get published.
This is completely true. You don’t need his help. From the text of the article, I can tell you that the author is lacking in real world experience and has a deep dislike of his students. The dislike is evident, but here is the key paragraph.
But in today’s Kindle/e-book/self-publishing environment, with New York publishing sliding into cultural irrelevance, I find questions about working with agents and editors increasingly old-fashioned. Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening.
Spoken like a man without a contract.
In reality, there are quite a few people who know exactly what is happening. We may not be able to predict the future, but we have an excellent idea of what is going right now and most of us – agents, writers, editors – use it effectively. It’s a fast changing industry and if you are not careful, it will leave you behind. That’s why you need an agent. That’s why you need to read contracts. That’s why you need to read blogs of working writers, who are usually forthcoming with the information.
6. It’s not important that people think you’re smart.
I actually agree with him. Don’t write to show off, write to tell a story.
7. It’s important to woodshed.
By this he means “work in solitude.”
Occasionally my students asked me about how I got published after I got my MFA, and the answer usually disappointed them. After I received my degree in 1999, I spent seven years writing work that no one has ever read—two novels and a book’s worth of stories totaling about 1,500 final draft pages. These unread pages are my most important work because they’re where I applied what I’d learned from my workshops and the books I read, one sentence at a time. Those seven years spent in obscurity, with no attempt to share my work with anyone, were my training, and they are what allowed me to eventually write books that got published.
We’ve been trained to turn to our phones to inform our followers of our somewhat witty observations. I think the instant validation of our apps is an enemy to producing the kind of writing that takes years to complete. That’s why I advise anyone serious about writing books to spend at least a few years keeping it secret. 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 he had allowed critique of his peers to guide him in his development, his apprenticeship would’ve been much shorter. This is an individual type of thing. If you feel you need feedback, get it. If you don’t, don’t.
To reiterate, you don’t need this man’s help. He doesn’t understand what his purpose was. When you come to a teacher trying to become a better writer, his function is to help you to develop the skills to be the best writer you want to be. You. Not him. If you want to write romances, then you should be given a stack of the romance greats. If you want to write complex literary fiction, your stack should be entirely different.
I don’t believe that this teacher had ever sat down with each of his students individually and asked them, “What do you like to read? Tell me about yourself. Tell me who you admire.” If a teacher fails to do that when you begin your Creative Writing class, I would encourage you to choose a different instructor.
If I sound angry, it’s because I am annoyed. Writing is a creative pursuit and creativity is a critical aspect of being human. To be in the position of shaping and helping people become better versions of themselves is a privilege. Through one’s writing, you can see the very core of one’s person and by holding his students in contempt and by being nearly disgusted at their supposed ineptitude or desire to tell the stories of their lives, this teacher caused irreparable harm. If I were one of his former students reading this, I would be devastated.