Can Writing Be Taught?

Writer’s Log, October 18th: Can writing be taught?

Anyone who’s ever spent time studying the craft of writing ends up running into this question, usually in a dark academic alleyway haunted by cranky grammarians and people who believe poetry has to rhyme. It’s an interesting question, to be sure, but in all honesty, I’m not sure if it’s all that relevant anymore. A question I find far more interesting is: How is writing learned?

We have all had great teachers and teachers who shall not be named. But where writing is concerned, I’m not sure the teacher matters half as much as the student. In fact, once the basics of grammar and syntax have been mastered, the writer needs to become her own best teacher in order to really grow. And while these basics absolutely must be learned, they are not hard to come by (preposition police, please note the new normal). Sure, they can be incredibly boring, but once you unpack them, the written world is your oyster. Think of it as a few miserable months that pay off in spades. You don’t even need to go to school; there are many great books out there that will take you through what you need to know and nothing more. Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences by Janis Bell is a favorite of mine.

But beyond those widely available building blocks, when it comes to constructing a writer in the real world, it is the writer who must be most aware of what she needs when and why. Perhaps she needs the constant surrounding of a classroom with deadlines and peer criticism and tons of feedback. Perhaps she needs to go hide in the woods. Either way, she is the only one who can tell what will work for her. And sometimes, she’ll also need to know when something that she’d thought would work forever has run its course. But in all instances, it is her own awareness of what makes her writing thrive and her own willingness to nurture those conditions that work best for her that will turn her talent into an identity. In short, she can benefit enormously from feedback and guidance and support, but it is the work she does alone, within herself, that will make her into a writer.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” my students’ expressions say when I tell them this, “now, what did you think of my story?”

Le sigh.

It’s enough to make a writing teacher (and yes, I ‘teach’ writing, though I prefer to think of it as a combination of planting seeds and untying knots, so I am clearly not the writing teacher of choice for many) throw her Webster’s out the window. Fortunately for all of us, these things don’t always follow a linear progression – or, rather, I think they follow more of a circular linear progression – spiraling upward until the distances between experience and expression grow shorter. For example, I am sure my writing teachers told me many of the same things I now tell my students, but when I was in my teens and twenties I just wasn’t in the space to hear it. Some people are, for sure, but I was one of many possessed by a hunger to achieve and saturated with the sophomoric conviction that life can be WON!

Thank goodness writing can be learned at any age. We are all narrators – stories are what we use to shape our lives. And coming into our stories can happen when we’re eight or eighty. It took me a really long time to have faith in this truth, to believe that no matter how old I get, I will never know it all. Not knowing it all, in fact, felt much more like a threat than an opportunity. But the writing has shown me how wonderful it is to be someone who still has something to learn, some new question to ask, something new to say.

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