05 March 2015

It Costs You Nothing To Be Gracious

by Brian Thornton

Today's blog post brought to you by two seemingly unrelated things:

Left Coast Crime, and how a guy who used to teach in an MFA (short for "Master's of Fine Arts") program tried to break the Internet.

Quick thumbnail, and then I'll dive right in.

A Thumping Good Time Will Definitely Be Had By All!
First, Left Coast Crime.

Next week hundreds of crime fiction fans/writers/industry professionals will descend on the unsuspecting city of Portland, Oregon for the 2015 Left Coast Crime Conference! LCC is *ALWAYS* a thumping good time. How many of you  among the Sleuthsayer Faithful are planning to attend?

Thumbnail delivered, and now on to the second part of this week's post (We'll come back to Left Coast in a bit).

Second, last week a guy who lives not too far from me tried to break the Internet.

The brick with which Ryan Boudinot shattered many a cyber glass house was a little article called "Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One." If you're not familiar with it, go take a look. I'll wait.

To summarize for those of you too busy/lazy/diffident/tech-ignorant to bother with clicking on the link above, in his piece Mr. Boudinot makes the following points:

1. Talent exists.
2. Talent does not exist in easily quantifiable amounts.
3. Talent is not equally distributed among human beings.
4. Some of us possess much more talent at some things than at others.
5. Number 4. above includes writing.

He said a lot of other things as well, but that was the basic gist (I'm not touching the contention that he supposedly advocated for more child abuse in the world. That clearly springs from a willful misreading of his work.). The response was immediate and ferocious. (You can find one example here.)

I'm in no position to wrestle with either Mr. Boudinot, or with any of his fans/detractors over the question of what does or does not constitute "talent." As a veteran of exactly ONE creative writing class during the too-long run of my college career, I'm hardly in a position to set myself up as any sort "final arbiter" of such things (For what it's worth, my sole sally into the wild and wonderful world of college creative writing courses was a million miles away from anything so prestigious as a Master-of-Fine-Arts program. It was a crime-fiction writing class taught by my favorite Shakespeare professor. I got an "A." I don't count the time I applied for admission into a middle-level creative writing MFA program, because they had the good sense to cash my application check and then to deny my application.).

Which is not to say that I don't have something to add to the dialogue. Well, TWO somethings, actually.

First: "There are many paths to God."

Second: "It costs you nothing to be gracious."

There Are Many Paths to God

One glorious Summer day several years ago, I was volunteering with a couple of friends at a recruiting table for one of the writing associations of which I am a dues-paying member, trying to scare up new membership at one of many local writer-focused events. A sea of humanity surged all around us during the breaks between author/agent/publishing professional panels, and we were trying to get the word out about this association for which we volunteered so much of our own time.

At one point in the afternoon, with most of those in attendance squirreled away attending panels, a mid-list author with whom I had a barely nodding acquaintance stalked past our table, stopped, turned, came back, stood in front of it, glared straight at me and said, "What can (Association name redacted) do for me?"

Now, this guy's debut thriller had sold pretty well when published the previous year, and he had a sequel due out that Fall. His publisher had devoted significant resources to publicizing his work.

In other words, this was kind of his moment.

This might be the appropriate time to mention that I am the author of multiple books (nine and counting, ten if you count the one I ghost-wrote), all of which I have sold and all of which have made money. Furthermore, I owe the initial contact with the woman who would eventually become first my editor and then my agent to a networking opportunity afforded me by this same association.

So I began to explain the networking opportunities available to our friend, the mid-lister. He didn't let me get far, before he cut me off, snapping, "I'm already a member. And everything I've gotten in this industry I've gotten on my own."

I couldn't quite figure out what he was really peeved about. So I asked him whether he'd even tried out the networking opportunities afforded by (Association name redacted). He confessed he hadn't. Said they wouldn't have worked for him.

And it hit me.

He didn't want to talk about (Association name redacted)'s networking opportunities. He wanted to talk about how well he was doing, and how bright his future looked.

So I smiled my most disarming smile (which isn't saying much) at him, and said, "There are many paths to God, (Author's name redacted)."

When he understandably gave me a blank stare in response, I grinned and briefly-and I hope, kindly-explained how networking through (Association name redacted) had jump-started my own writing career, and invited both of my friends working the booth with me to share their own success stories.

The point was that in this self-pub, ebook world, there is no magic bullet that will automatically guarantee publishing success, and there are certainly no gatekeepers keeping those who want to be heard from putting their work out there.

Here is where maxim number two comes in to play.

It Costs You Nothing to Be Gracious

The point made, I moved on and mentioned hearing about (Author's name redacted)'s recent publishing success, congratulated him on it, then asked how his next book project was coming along, what was next for him, etc.

Hey, it was his moment.

What's more, nothing I said would have changed the trajectory of this guy's writing career. His second book would neither succeed nor tank based on something I said or didn't say. Showing him up by pointing out how many books I'd published would have no positive effect on even the outcome of this particular conversation.

When I asked my wonderful wife to proofread this post, she mentioned a quote she'd read by the great Maya Angelou: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

I couldn't agree more. I only wish I'd said that first.

And this, in turn, brings me back to Mr. Boudinot's article in The Stranger. I cannot for the life of me figure out what he hoped to accomplish with it.

I have been a member of a critique group for the last eight or so years. Over that time we've had people come in, leave, come back, leave again. It's been a pretty fluid line-up. From the beginning we established that the first question each of us should ask when commencing a critique of one another's work is, "How can I help improve this piece?"

I can't help but wonder whether Mr. Boudinot asked this sort of question when looking at the work of his students. Did he ever ask it? Did he ask it up to a certain point, and then stop? Was he just burned out?

(Based on a reading of both his initial essay and a follow-up interview he gave to one of The Stranger's writers, I am leaning toward "burn-out".)

Because who in this day of self/e-pub, gets to be the final arbiter on who ought to put their back into their writing, and who ought not waste their time? It's not as if Ryan Boudinot is handing out book contracts.

I mean, come ON. Plenty of lousy writers publish plenty of lousy books every year. So do plenty of GOOD writers, for that matter. And who among us has not read a novel we knew was lousy and enjoyed it anyway?

Like Maya Angelou said, it's about how you make people (in this case, the reader) FEEL.

I know an incredibly gifted writer who has written a cracking, kick-ass first crime novel and then spent the past several years alternately noodling with it and setting it aside, rather than putting it out there for readers to enjoy. Would someone like this be well-served by a dose of Mr. Boudinot's tough love?

I think not.

I myself am hardly an example of the type of writer Mr. Boudinot seems to prefer. I didn't decide I wanted to write professionally until my early 30s (In his essay he expresses the opinion that people who "commit" to writing in their late teens/early 20s are the only ones who will likely be worth reading.). What's more, I didn't write the first eight that I published out of some burning commitment to either the craft or to the subject matter (although the one I wrote about Abraham Lincoln comes close). I wrote them because I made very little money at my regular job and because someone looked at my writing and saw potential, and offered me money to write about a variety of subjects.

So I took the money and wrote.

And wrote.

And wrote.

I suspect that this experience counts as its own kind of MFA experience.

To circle back around and tie all of the above back in with Left Coast Crime, I have to say I'm grateful to Mr. Budinot for writing his essay and to The Stranger for publishing it. What's more, I'm even more grateful for the timing of it.

Because we as writers possess the wonderful ability to do what Maya Angelou mentioned in the bit I quoted above: to make people feel. I think it behooves us to recall that when we dive into the maelstrom which is a writing conference. So many panels to take in! So many friends to catch up with! So many new books to find out about! So many new people to meet!

So if you're going to Left Coast Crime, look me up. Mention the words "Maya Angelou," and I just might buy you a drink, or buy your book.

Or both!

See you at Left Coast!


  1. Have a great time at Left Coast Crime!

    I think Boudinot burned out. And I think he actually thought he'd help people to save money and wear and tear by basically telling them that the secret to writing is (1) write a lot; (2) read even more; (3) check your grammar; (4) read/write some more; (5) do it because you have to do it, not because you're trying to make money. Which is good advice. Granted, I'm sure he pissed off tons of people.

    On the other hand, there is a real difference between talent and the Real Deal: it can be summed up in Salieri v. Mozart. Verrocchio v. DaVinci. In both cases, easily distinguished at first hearing/glance, even though Salieri and Verrocchio were very competent at their work. BUT - you can teach competence. And, given enough hard work and determination, you can make a damned good living off of being very competent - sometimes a hell of a lot better off of that than you can off of genius (thinking Van Gogh here). I know this because I'm competent at a lot of things, and VERY competent at a few.

    But you're right, it costs nothing to be gracious - and that you certainly are. I know you were extremely gracious to me, taking me under your wing at Bouchercon. Tell you what, next conference we're at, drinks are on me. And when does the novel come out?

  2. Interesting stuff, Brian. I like Angelou's comment.

    I wrote a piece about talent a few years ago. I have a problem with the whole concept: http://criminalbrief.com/?p=9376

    It's funny; as I get older I feel like I get better at spotting the hidden agendas in people's conversation, like your guy who really wanted to talk about his own career, not the association. Maybe i comes from writing about different characters?

    See you at Left Coast Crime!

  3. Makes you wonder why this rude guy is still a member :-) Kind of sad, really.

    Wish I was going to LCC! Always fun. Maybe next year...

  4. As FT Bradley says, it’s kind of sad. I came back to catch part 2 and it strikes me that Mr. Boudinot violates the very spirit of his own article. Burnout, as Eve points out.

  5. Thanks for weighing in, Eve, Rob, Fleur and Leigh.

    So I've managed to piece my original post back together, and am really appreciating the comments.

    In a recent development, Boudinothaters ("AntiBoudinots"?) now have a web page to call their own where they can hang their Boudinot hate mail:


    Although I am sure that he welcomes the attention, I sure wouldn't want to change places with him.


  6. Looking forward to seeing everyone at LCC, and I shall enter the bar muttering "Maya Angelou" just to see who might buy me a drink.

    Being gracious is a lot more fun, and more rewarding, than ever being bitter or flip or dismissive. Thanks for reminding us of that!

  7. Gotta say I really think this is a great post, buddy. One of the best I've read here.

    I won't be making this year's WCC. However I'll see you at next year's, here in Phoenix just around this time.



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