To the Ex-MFA Teacher

this article has been floating around facebook: Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One by Ryan Boudinot. As a creative writing teacher at the (lowly? modest?) undergraduate level, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on his assertions:

“Writers are born with talent.”

Yes, of course! But I think that EVERYONE is born with some degree, however small, of writing talent. If you read Gregory Orr’s Four Temperaments, I think you’ll find that everyone is born with a propensity for one of those. Its a matter of developing what they have and cultivating in them what they don’t have.

Often, in my creative writing classes, the students that seem to be “natural talents” at writing have actually been nurtured as writers before they were writers. A student who had a mother who was book-crazy, a student who had a father as a preacher, a student who had a grandmother who told fantastic lies–they are picking up on language somewhere.

Every person, if they work hard enough and long enough, can write well. Not everyone has the ability to become the next Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot–just like everyone can learn to play basketball but not everyone is going to be the next Michael Jordon.

So much of finding success as a writer has to do with persistence and reading (a ton) and writing (a ton).

As much as young writers love to be told that writing talent is just something you are born with (because then why work for it? and also it means you are special, gifted, above the rest), I don’t find this idea useful as a creative writing teacher. I instead believe that every student has some measure of talent that can be cultivated and some genre of writing that they can excel in, if they work hard enough.

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

I think that there are So very many exceptions, this broad statement doesn’t hold up. Maybe someone never tried writing as a child or teenager–because of economic / educational disadvantage, troubled family life, whatever– that does not mean that they don’t have the natural ability and gifting with words necessary to become a very successful writer.

“If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.”

I honestly agree with this one–you’ll never have More time to write then when you are in a writing program where most of your job is To Write! If you don’t have time to write, its because you aren’t making the time (and if you aren’t making the time, is it really that important to you?). You can’t expect to become better at something you rarely do or practice.

“If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.”

I agree with this one too. If you are struggling in my creative writing class, its likely because you’ve not read a thing I’ve assigned all semester. Reading is the best way to learn to write, the absolute best. Read much and read often.

“No one cares about your problems if you’re a **** (bad)*** writer.”

Not necessarily true, in life, but probably true in memoirs–if you have a story worth telling, don’t automatically have people discount it because the writing is poor.

“You don’t need my help to get published.”

I’m not a big fan of self-publishing, and I do think that connections you make in writing programs are valuable. But mostly I’m an optimist–I think that getting published has to do with the quality of your work and your persistence.

“It’s not important that people think you’re smart.”

 Definitely true. There are too many poets sucking the life out of their writing by being too focused on sounding intellectual, smart, eloquent. Worrying too much about impressing someone with a poem kills it every time.

“It’s important to woodshed.”

I agree with this too. Its ok if every poem doesn’t get published or even read. Its ok if books worth of poems are never published. Everything you write goes into those future poems, future books. I wrote probably four times the amount of poems that are in Keeping Me Still, so many of which never saw the light of day. Much of a writers work is done alone, without any public notice or acclaim.


So ex-MFA teacher guy, I’d say I mostly agree with you, or at least about half-so. What do y’all think?

a question of calling

I went to church sunday partially because I didn’t want to miss the next sermon in the series, but, I’ll be honest, primarily because I’d had the girls by myself for going on four days and wanted to have a coffee and sit in peace for an hour or so while the girls were in nursery. Not the best motivation, but it did get us out the door. 

my pastor ‘s vocation is teaching at a private school in town. He was talking about how work is worship—that we are created to work and to worship,  and we worship through our work too. he said that he is an introvert, the intj personality (me too).  yet he has an extrovert job, teaching (me too!). and sometimes it just wears him out because of that (me too…). but God created him to be a teacher, even though it is hard for him at times. And sometimes God made us to do a work that is hard for us.
i half expected him to stop and say “i’m talking to you, RENEE EMERSON!”

Since I got my job, I had always thought it was going to be a temporary thing. after all, my kids are really little and we want more in the future.  my husband is really involved in ministry, so he needs my support. I’m bad at public speaking—in college I often cried or fainted after/during speaking in public. 

Despite all that, here I am, two years later, still teaching.  I’ve struggled with it. often in my prayers, I ask God what is the deal—how could he have me doing this job for when I’m obviously not made for it. 

I know I was made, like many women, to be a wife and mother, and made, more specifically to me, to be a writer. Maybe it is possible that  I was also made to teach and my having a teaching job is not just a stop-over on my way to doing what I’m really supposed to do, whatever that is. Maybe it isn’t a roadblock or a hindrance or a heavy burden but it is God allowing me to use a gift he’s given me, the gift of teaching. 

Two years of thinking a certain way, changed by a five-minute rabbit-trail in a sermon. God’s given me much to think on this month.

…if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise…

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Sylvia Plath

every semester i have at least one.

mrs. emerson, i can’t write. i have to take this elective because of X, but i can’t write fiction / poetry. 

when i first started writing, i thought that was true. that some people can write, and some people just can’t. but the more i have studied writing and especially after teaching writing, i’ve come to think differently. i believe that anyone can be taught (or teach themselves) how to write. it is just a matter of persistence.

i’ve never been a good singer. i didn’t grow up in a musical household, i wasn’t in the church choir. so i never sang much around the house until zu was born–then i sang (and still sing) everyday, to her. when she was about a year old, i was singing some silly song to her, and i looked up to see bryan had been listening. i hadn’t suddenly become adele, but he could tell my range had grown and i could match pitch. it wasn’t something i had consciously set out to improve on, but everyday use had made my voice stronger.

this works for writing too. the classic advice on how to be a better writer? write write write, read read read. and it is true. if you write everyday, read everyday, your writing will improve.

this doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily become a professional writer, publish a book, find fame. to give another example, if i worked at it everyday, i’m pretty sure i could learn to play basketball. i might even be able to sink it from half-court regularly, if i work hard, for some years. but will i ever be michael jordan? no.

so, yes, you have to be born with some of it. that gift for language. i believe that everyone is born with some small bit of writing talent that can be nurtured and grown.

every semester i have my writing students read the four temperaments and the forms of poetry by greg orr. in this essay, he states that there are four temperaments to poetry–music, imagination, story and structure.

Orr goes on to say “To me, the notion of the four temperaments holds the promise of an underlying pattern that can orient and guide a poet as well as a critic. The first issue is always one of self-knowledge or self-recognition. Once a poet has a sense of his or her fundamental temperament, the possibilities for growth are twofold. The first is to go further into the gift, but such a decision carries with it the risk of a narrowing as well as the promise of a deepening. The second direction is to expand. Such an expansion can be under stood as the poet’s struggle to nurture and develop the other temperaments in such a way that their energies and constraints enrich his or her poems. Again, no one can hope to have all four temperaments in equal strength, but the goal will always be to have all four temperaments present, though some will arrive as gifts and others must be learned and labored for.

so just like i have the self-conscious student or two each semester approach me worried about their writing abilities, i also always have a self-conscious student or two who tells me, at the end of the semester, that they didn’t know that they could write like they can write. it is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching when i see it click for a student; when they turn in that poem or story that they didn’t know that they could write–and when they finally see their potential.