Reader Request 2004 #3: Can Writing Be Taught?

Aurora asks:

It looks like you have already got plenty of suggestions. Anyway here goes:

Do you think that writing can be ‘taught’? Art schools exist without raising eyebrows, but when you mention creative writing courses, people give you sardonic grins.

Heh. You think people don’t raise their eyebrows at the idea of art schools? That’s a very tolerant crowd you run with, Aurora.

When you talk about “teaching writing,” I’m assuming you’re not talking about teaching the mechanics of writing, which clearly can be taught and ought to be taught to every single American citizen, and frankly I’m always flummoxed as to why it’s not taught better. Drives me nuts when people I know are quite intelligent write as if they never passed a grade in school in which the primary writing instrument didn’t come in a box with 63 brethren of varying colors.

Rather, I expect you’re talking about teaching writing in a creative sense, and here I have to say that I suppose you could, and that an aspiring writer could shell out for a degree in something like creative writing, but I don’t how it’s really useful at all. I don’t think much of things like degrees in creative writing or, for that matter, journalism. I’m an anachronistic throwback — an atavist, if you will — but I tend to think of writing as a very practical, blue-collar application. Don’t study it, for God’s sake. Just do it. I took one writing class my entire academic career, a creative writing course which was useful primarily as an object lesson why such classes weren’t particularly useful, and otherwise left that side of academia alone. On the other hand, I wrote constantly for my school newspaper and later for papers and magazines in Chicago. Learning by doing worked for me.

Let me additionally go further and say that I think getting a creative writing or a journalism degree might ultimately be harmful to a writer. Classes that help writers learn specific writing techniques can be useful (I point I’m adding in late, as several folks in the comment thread have noted I’ve ignored this point completely), but if one assumes — as I do — that writers become better writers when they actually experience the world and/or other ways of thinking, getting trapped in an academic feedback loop of writing is pretty damn useless. All you do is hang out with other would-be writers, writing writerly little stories to impress them. You’re not actually learning much about anything or anyone else. My own guess is that this has led to the really fabulously boring world of modern literary fiction, where all the writing is terribly clever but doesn’t actually say anything of consequence to anyone who’s not already a writer or wishing they were. In other words, modern literary fiction is just like sitting in a room full of people who are delighted to smell their own farts. Good for them, but I’d like to go outside, if it’s all the same.

This is why, for my money — literally, as I buy books — the most fun and interesting writing today is done by genre fiction writers, most of whom (anecdotally speaking, based on my own reading) aren’t lifers in an academic writing program, and have been exposed to lives and jobs entirely unrelated to writing. Clearly, there is bad genre fiction (oh my is there ever), but the best genre fiction writers play with ideas and do things with their stories that literary fiction writers wouldn’t dream of. The implication is that this is because literary fiction writers wouldn’t lower themselves to do ‘genre,’ but I suspect some of it may be they just don’t have the imaginative and experiential tools to do it.

I’m on record as being ambivalent to the value of writing workshops, but I will say that of all the “teaching writing” methods, in which a student goes to learn at the feet of whomever, this seems to me the best way to do it, since it’s short (a few weeks at most), it’s immersive, it’s intense and at the end of it you still have to go back to your life — you can’t just add another year of grad school (unless you go to one while you’re in grad school for writing. In which case: What the hell is wrong with you?). You have to be focused in a workshop environment, and I think that’s probably a good thing.

But again, I think the best way to learn writing is simply to do it, send it out, and see what the editors of the various literary outlets you’ve been reading have to say. You’ll learn what they want, what you need to work on, and you’ll be getting the practical benefit of actually writing. And ultimately, that’s how one learns to write: By writing.

2 Comments on “Reader Request 2004 #3: Can Writing Be Taught?”

  1. Can writing be taught?

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  2. Miscellanea 8

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