I'm the guy who made Ryan Boudinot cry. I'm the MFA student who wrote a book about child abuse, a book about my experience in the Troubled Teen Industry—a billion-dollar network of private, for-profit prison camps for kids. (That's right: You can outsource your child abuse now.)
For the record, I personally don't care that Ryan made a joke about child abuse that pissed everyone else off. I love jokes. Especially tasteless ones. I wrote a book about child abuse and I tried to make it as funny as possible. Levity can help make painful truths palatable, and laughing helps it hurt less. Yes, Ryan's joke was in poor taste and probably delivered at the wrong time (a better time would have been while sipping whiskey around a table with close friends), but I want more humor in life and in writing and I tend to forgive jokes that fall flat. It was flippant hyperbole. Of course he doesn't want anyone, especially children, to suffer abuse. He has two kids and a reputation as a devoted and caring dad. Personally, I thought the funniest abuse joke in his piece was the bit about woodshedding, because while "woodshedding" just means practicing, "taking someone to the woodshed" means taking someone outside to beat or kill them. Self-flagellating is part of being an artist. Maybe part of being a human. We already beat ourselves up enough, though; do we really need Ryan to add insults on top?
Since Ryan embroiled himself in a firestorm of controversy, a lot of responses to his rant have emerged. Many of them rightly characterize Ryan's piece as mean-spirited and tone-deaf. But there was enough truth in his tirade that it struck a chord: While plenty of people cheered him on for saying things so many creative-writing instructors say only behind the closed doors of faculty lounges when they're blowing off steam, the more common response was that it was incredibly inappropriate of him to betray the trust of his former students by publicly criticizing their apprentice attempts with such an unapologetically contemptuous tone. Even as many agreed with Ryan's complaints about the academic establishment, even as people praised his brutal honesty, the general consensus seemed to be that he was being an asshole about it.
I don't disagree, and I don't need to dissect the article point for point. I'd like to instead redirect the conversation toward what Ryan's piece can teach us about being a part of a larger literary community. I'd also like to explain why people who are talking about trying to oust him from his role as executive director of Seattle City of Literature are misguided.
I've known Ryan for nearly four years now. We worked together closely for two semesters, and he was the second faculty reader on my thesis at the school he recently resigned from less than gracefully. His reasons for leaving, which go beyond those complaints covered in his screed, are between him and the school.
During my time in that MFA program, I found the institution to be the single most nurturing and accepting community I had ever been a part of. Not kidding. It's the coolest tribe I've ever belonged to.
And Ryan was a part of that tribe. Now he has alienated himself from it. People are hurt and angry. He has been ostracized. I'm friends with other faculty advisers in the program, and they're all astounded at the audacity of their former colleague. It upsets me to see our online message boards awash with students and alumni attempting to process what essentially amounts to being called worthless by a man they trusted with their fledgling efforts.
As good readers and literary citizens, we might ask: Why would Ryan do this? What was he trying (and failing) to express?
Shortly after Ryan's article galvanized the writing world to outrage, he retro-ominously tweeted: "The movie Whiplash just saved my life."
In Whiplash, J.K. Simmons plays an intensely critical instructor at a world-class music school, a drum-teacher-cum-drill-sergeant who solicits transcendence through brutality, basically beating the best performances possible out of his pupils.
This is one school of thought on teaching: tough love. I've had experience with it in my life. Sometimes it pushes people. Sometimes it pushes them over the edge.
Someone posted this in the Stranger article's comments section, under the commenter handle So It Goes: "Ryan Boudinot was my advisor at this MFA program. I am pretty confident that I'm not one of his real deal students. I am also a woman. And I'm not offended by him or what he wrote. He was one of my greatest teachers—generous with his guidance and yes, blunt. I appreciated it because he was honest and fair. Maybe his tone is too strong in this essay, but writers need to practice—reading and writing—and far too many don't do enough of either (myself included). I think when Ryan says some people should give up writing [it] is precisely the dare to those folks not to and the only way they will keep writing and growing."
During my time working with Ryan, he was hard on me. He was an amazing instructor who ran some of the best workshops I've ever been in, led some of the most fun lectures and discussions about literature I've ever attended, and exposed me to wonderful writers, men and women. Undoubtedly, this brought out some of my best work. He was ruthless with his feedback, but thorough and constructive. He piled on the workload and the reading load. He demanded his idea of excellence. He would not tolerate typos or tardiness. At one point, when I asked for some slack, he tore into me mercilessly, even suggesting I drop out of school. I refused, called him out on being an asshole, and then worked harder.
The next residency, he shook my hand and congratulated me like some sitcom dad, saying, "You took your licks, but you gave 'em right back."
While some students tried to rise to his often impossible standards, other students, including friends of mine, got down on their work and down on themselves and eventually broke down, cried, complained to the administration, or begged for another adviser.
Tough love isn't necessarily a fundamentally flawed pedagogy. The problem arises when a teacher with an inability to determine which students can handle it and which can't applies the method indiscriminately. The problem is compounded when a teacher does this at an institution that has a completely antithetical ethos to the teacher's.
An instructor with an ethos of exacting excellence by means of brutal expectations probably doesn't belong in a hippy college full of sensitive snowflakes. And that's cool. Get in where you fit in. I can get with both. I know that after I survived his hazing, I welcomed the warm embrace of more nurturing advisers. Following Ryan's boot camp, I worked with two wonderful writers who, as faculty advisers, were tireless cheerleaders, supporters, and soothers. I was lucky to have both forms of instruction. When I was lazy, I had someone flogging me, and when I was emotionally exhausted and flagging, I had someone else to sustain me.
Apparently I rose to Ryan's standards with my memoir. But let's be clear. Ryan's opinion is merely that: Ryan's opinion. Ryan alluded to me in his piece clearly enough for our MFA community to recognize me, whom he referred to as one of the "real deal" writers he's worked with during his tenure as an adviser. He unexpectedly listed me as one of his favorite Pacific Northwest writers in a subsequent interview, a flattering but dubious honor because it was couched in disparaging comments about cohorts and colleagues whom I love, respect, and admire. It put me in an awkward position with a lot of friends who were offended by his remarks, and left a whole bunch of people wondering what an unknown like me was doing next to names like Rebecca Brown, Maria Semple, Tom Robbins, Neal Stephenson, and Raymond Carver (I'm touched to be mentioned in such good company, but I definitely don't deserve it).
But here's some hilarious irony: I was late. A lot. I had a serious problem with laziness and procrastination and time management, and I complained about not having enough time. (I even asked for advice on managing my time, which Ryan gave generously. Really good advice, in fact.) Because Ryan seemed to take a sadistic joy in assigning a heavy reading load my first semester, I asked for shorter books my second. I've always been an avid reader but didn't decide to take writing seriously until I was 20. I didn't get around to reading The Great Gatsby until grad school. I love David Foster Wallace but still haven't read Infinite Jest. I handed in work riddled with typos. And I totally used my memoir as therapy.
Yet despite being guilty of all the writerly cardinal sins Ryan complained about, I'm still the "real deal" in Ryan's eyes.
And as far as I'm concerned, anyone who writes and keeps writing is the real deal, too.
The implied premise of Ryan's piece—which probably should have been titled "Ryan's Rules for Making It"—is that MFA programs are someplace you go to train rigorously to become a successful professional writer. It goes without saying that not everyone will be a commercial success, that only a fraction of MFAs will go on to publish or even teach, and only time will tell whose work has staying power. But if you write, you're a writer. And the rewards are rich: having fun with language. Processing the world around you. Connecting with others. Being part of a larger community. Knowing yourself (or not, and coming off tone-deaf). Developing a deeper empathy.
If you have an undying love of literature and arranging letters in a pleasing fashion, good news: You're the real deal!
There are no universal rules or standards for arts education, or life for that matter—we all come to things in our own sweet time and only a shit deals in absolutes.
If you start attending ballet lessons at 50, you're unlikely to become the next Martha Graham, but you may get some exercise, develop your muscles and a sense of discipline, improve your balance, build confidence, get to look at other lovely bodies doing ballet, and make some new friends.
Kurt Vonnegut said, "To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is to make your soul grow. So do it."
Listen: The idea of demanding excellence from one's self and others is a noble one and necessary on some level if we want to continue to produce excellent literature. But in a capitalist country and a paid education model where students are customers who feel entitled to some measure of respect and customer service, the place for a punitive pedagogy is probably relegated to competitive programs with endowments where pupils arrive prepared for cutthroat competition and expect to have excellence exacted from their soft fleshy insides by means of ruthless workshopping and merciless feedback, not a progressive institution with an ideology of universal acceptance like the one where Ryan and I worked together.
One of the more well-reasoned and evenhanded replies I've read to Ryan's article was by an anonymous contributor at Electric Literature, identified as "a former MFA instructor who did not wish to be identified." This author makes a great point about how Ryan's inflammatory tone distracts from the discussion he's starting about the problems associated with the overproliferation of for-profit MFA programs. This overproliferation is affecting writing and teaching standards and exacerbating the student debt crisis.
Some schools are more competitive than others, admitting only writers who've been judged by an admissions committee to be of a certain caliber, while others admit anyone with an undergraduate degree who can pay the cost of tuition, and sometimes an undergraduate degree is not even required if the student has relevant work experience. It makes a big difference whether a school is endowed (because it determines how picky the school can afford to be), and it's true that profit-driven schools with very high acceptance rates are ruining things for everyone else.
But this raises other questions: Why does the value of your arts education depend on excluding others? Why can't everyone be invited to the party? Don't we want as many people as possible reading literature and learning to communicate well? Doesn't capitalism and a free-market economy mean people can "waste" their money on an education if they want and educators can profit by selling a service that's in demand? Does the existence of someone else who's not as good a writer as you are in your MFA program devalue your degree or threaten your identity? Won't the real world sort out which people have the talent, commitment, and discipline to produce quality work?
The anonymous former MFA teacher at Electric Literature makes points about how students and teachers who are "serious" about writing suffer in the company of those who aren't, but seriously? That's bullshit. You know when I learn most about writing? When I'm in a room full of eighth graders who aren't serious about anything and keep going off topic and I have to keep finding interesting ways to engage them and tactfully steer the discussion back toward craft. Teacher or student, just find the school that's the right fit for you. If you're in an MFA program and you feel like your students or classmates or teachers are lazy, entitled half-wits who are holding you back, get yourself into a more competitive program.
People sign up for MFA programs for their own reasons, and it's not anyone else's job to evaluate or judge those reasons. Paddle your own canoe. Work your side of the street. Assume everyone else is an autonomous adult doing the same. Be the best teacher you can be. Be the best student you can be. Be the best writer you can be. Be the best literary citizen you can be. Treat everyone as kindly and generously as you can possibly manage. And when you fail, buy them some whiskey and say you're sorry.
Regardless of your feelings on pedagogy or the MFA industry, one thing made clear by the plethora of impassioned responses to Ryan's piece is that the world distrusts myopic egos imposing their idea of what art is worthy and what isn't. Hear, hear. The pushback is symptomatic of a changing vanguard—one that insists on inclusion and welcomes writers of every stripe and pedigree, every creed, color, gender, sexuality, and skill, so long as they have something worthwhile to contribute. Get with it or GTFO.
Excellence is important to aspire to, but so is acceptance. It is not enough to be excellent writers. We must also be kind and generous and patient, accepting and inclusive. We must also be excellent people.
George Saunders says that good writing should be as long as it needs to be to tease out the complexity of an issue. He also says that a piece should be revised repeatedly over a long period of time to avoid hasty miscommunications. I have Ryan to thank for learning these things; he's the one who assigned Saunders's essay "The Braindead Megaphone" to me. The irony is that Ryan fired off a short, reductive, impulsive piece himself, full of hasty generalizations, that doesn't follow the very advice he turned me on to.
Now someone other than Ryan has registered the domain name Ryanboudinot.com and is collecting the outraged responses to his rant. They're calling on him to apologize and to abandon his role as executive director of Seattle City of Literature. They're urging those in power to force Ryan to step aside.
Here's the thing: Whatever else he's guilty of, Ryan Boudinot conceived, created, and constructed the Seattle City of Literature project all on his own, from nothing, without a dime from the city. In spite of its official-sounding name, there's nothing official about Seattle City of Literature. It's just a nonprofit he started. He started it with nothing but his vision, his connections, his reputation, his ability to solicit volunteer help, and his resolute belief that our city is an amazingly bookish town with a rich literary heritage that deserves this international recognition. Few people realize that Ryan fired his hotshot New York agent, sold his next two books to local independent presses, and sank almost all his personal savings into founding Seattle City of Literature. His desired outcome: more literary jobs, more publishing opportunities, more books.
Ryan has worked without pay for two years to enlist the community in making this nonprofit a reality. However much of a dick the guy can be, he cares about writing and literature and the city of Seattle.
He forged a partnership with the Sorrento Hotel, which is providing offices and a space for writers to congregate and work. He wants to start a publishing imprint with the purpose of showcasing local authors and translated works. He visited other cities of literature around the world to cultivate relationships and research how they run their operations. He's begun the hard work of raising money.
And then, yeah, he went and acted like an idiot by publishing his too-close-to-the-bone take on students who irritated him. He has inarguably put his foot in his mouth, and I'm sure he still has the taste of sour sweaty socks on his tongue. I would imagine he's paying the price now. It's hard to go around asking for funding with sour sweaty sock on your breath.
But artists notoriously struggle with their own egos and sometimes have a hard time getting out of their own way. A lot of famous directors in the film world exact excellence by berating and bullying. People with a strong vision of how things should be can often be self-obsessed, and self-obsession creates blinders to the world around you. Before the DSM terminology of a narcissist became popular, it was just called having your head up your ass. Ryan is obviously a man of vision. His book Blueprints of the Afterlife proves that. His work envisioning and establishing Seattle City of Literature proves it, too.
So, Seattle, can we make allowances for an artist in a position as a public ambassador being brash and crass, or do we throw the baby out with the bathwater and write off people who can't always play nice?
No one likes a bully. But can we show Ryan the empathy and understanding he couldn't show his students? Could we help him learn compassion?
It's easy to treat people who behave badly as cardboard cutouts, as antagonistic foils to our protagonist, who is usually us. But as readers and writers, we know that the people who come off as jerks are just humans with feelings and flaws. As literary citizens, it is incumbent upon us to extend the benefit of the doubt, to exercise empathy, and to assume there is a fully fleshed-out human underneath who acted out the way he did for reasons outside our understanding.
I have made rash decisions. I have written and distributed things in anger I can't take back. We are writers. We live out loud, for better or worse.
I don't want to be an apologist—I hope Ryan will apologize for himself—but I want to advocate understanding and empathy all around, in the interest of the worthy cause that is Seattle City of Literature. It deserves the increased visibility it now has. It doesn't deserve to stall out under the weight of bad press.
And you know what they say about bad press. You probably hadn't even heard of Seattle City of Literature until Ryan's piece. He started a conversation with invective and then dropped the mic and walked away, which is in bad taste. Now he should rejoin the conversation and make his mea culpas so we can move forward with what's important: producing good writing and making Seattle an official UNESCO City of Literature.