Friday, July 13, 2007

Can Writing Be Taught?

One seldom hears this question asked about other subjects. The answer is too obvious. Can painting be taught? Of course; indeed, any college can outline a sequence of disciplines that must be mastered to learn the craft. Can physics be taught? Sure—and it’s hard to imagine learning much of it all on your own. Music, which seems to me to rely heavily on inborn gifts, gets taught every day; I’m given to understand that this is what music teachers engage in.

Yet it isn’t uncommon for people (often professors of English) to claim that writing can’t be taught. I’ve often wondered why one hears this so much. Sometimes it may be a matter of envy (“I have to publish refereed papers on the use of images of illness in the works of Virginia Woolf—and Williams, over in Creative Writing, all he has to do is comment on a few student short stories!”) or self-justification (“I tried to learn to write, but I never made it as a writer—clearly it can’t be taught!”). But more often I think it's a result of unrealistic expectations.

Very few physics students, even those who do quite well on their exams, end up as brilliant researchers. Few dancers, even though they know every move and transition, become principals at the Met. Few musicians, even those trained by the best, make a living at performance or composition. Rising to the top of a field requires not only training and discipline, but talent and luck as well. Yet no one argues that because talent and luck are needed for a brilliant career that physics or dance or music can’t be taught.

One of the problems, though, is that so much of the learning of writing is self-teaching—self-teaching through years of reading, self-teaching through writing and failing. Musicians face the same sort of long self-education, listening to music in all spare moments, exploring different kinds of musical forms, and devoting hours to practice. I don’t know any good writers who aren’t lifelong voracious readers (though I’ve met plenty of people who don’t read much, but think they’d like to write), and most good writers I've known have long been serious spare-time scribblers.

When a student who has been a lifelong reader walks into a writing class, she is likely to have a subconscious grasp (perhaps a firm grasp, perhaps one that is a bit more slippery) of elements like rhythm, diction, pacing, and characterization. Often the teachers and other students respond by calling her ‘talented.’ And this student may well be ‘talented’—but much of her skill quite likely comes from sheer obsession, from years spent swimming in a sea of words.

Can writing be taught? Sure. But it's easiest taught to those who have already spent years teaching themselves. There's nothing mysterious about that.


Jeremy James said...

Great way of putting it, David.

I think people confuse drive, interest, craft, and experience all the time, thus leading to the debate of whether the arts can be taught or not.

The world of athletics offers interesting parallels. I have a friend who is 6'8", naturally muscular, and weighs 320 pounds--the perfect offensive linemen, genetically. But he has no *desire* to be a lineman, so he never studied film, or hit the gym, etcetera, and he never became a good O-lineman. I'd argue that many people don't have the desire to read as many books, or practice their writing as often as what most successful writers do, and it's this lack of desire that some professors confuse with "talent which cannot be taught."

I *do* think talent plays a role, however--all else equal--but I think you'd agree with me that lack of talent is *rarely* what keeps someone from being published (that's usually lack of persistence or drive, or plain ol' bad luck).

David Isaak said...

I think you're right. Talent is is great thing to have, but some writers have argued that talent is probably the least important agreement in the mix. I'd argue that Raymond Carver, for example, had very little inborn talent, but incredible dedication and some things he desperately wanted to say.

Pamela quotes fictional choreographer Joe Gideon from the movie "All That Jazz": "I may not be able to make you a great dancer. I may not even be able to make you a good dancer. But if you'll work with me, I can promise I'll make you a better dancer."

Neil said...

Interesting topic, David.

My wife is a fantastic illustrator, but she rarely draws. (She is a better illustrator than I am writer.) She has to be in completely the right frame of mind, and might illustrate something two or three times a year.

I find it immensely frustrating, that she has that talent but doesn't make use of it. It's obvious that she could be better with practice, but that's what she says put her off: going to art college and being given pointless tasks to do over and over again.

I wonder, due to my lackadaisy approach to writing, if I had ever been in that situation of intense study, whether my drive would have been battered into submission.

It harks back to your previous post about full-time writers losing that creative impetus if writing is what they're supposed to be doing.

Sam Taylor said...

My wife writes every day, and reads voraciously. When she started writing, she had a lot of problems with switching perspective, tense, and even tone--rapidly, and often within the same sentence. She never gave up, though, and now, several years later, her writing is very clean.

The frustration that I find now is that she is completely obsessed with writing Fan Fiction for her favorite TV shows. She has no desire at all to write a novel, or to get published. In fact, she has negative desire.

It would take too long, she believes, and there's no guarantee of the type of feedback that she loves so much. I, for one, would like her to make a little money at something she does every day anyway and loves it. But if she writes for money, she's afraid she won't love it anymore. I have to respect that.

There are different types of desire; each person has different goals.

On the subject of learning: It takes three-to-four years of intensive practice at any one thing to become good at it. This is the theory of Martial Arts -- it takes about that long to get your Black Belt in a good school. Believe me; I've done a lot of martial arts.

This is also the theory in college (4-year degree).

How good you get is based off of your previous experience, the quality of your teacher, your level of drive/dedication, your individual cleverness, and the amount of work you put in.

Whether you succeed at your profession is affected by how good -- but, in some profession (such as writing) is more a factor of luck.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Neil--

Yeah, I'm with your wife on the idea that "exercises" can drain the energy right out of the whole creative process. I can't write with any intensity unless I think we're playing for keeps.

That's why, on the educational side, I prefer workshops or writing groups (where you present parts of your work-in-progress) to creative writing classes (where students are often assigned exercises).

I figure it's like learning woodworking--even when you start learning, you should be working on a project.

And, as you note, if it's a project you aren't supposed to be working on, so much the better. Fortunately, most people's lives are arranged so that even an evening writing workshop can be construed as cheating on one's important commitments, right?

David Isaak said...

Hi Sam--

I think you sum it up rather well. And four years may be a magic number of some sort, though with writers I'm guessing it might be better measured in terms of words committed to paper (Hemingway thought that a million words would get you there.)

I don't understand the urge to write fan-fic, but if it makes her happy...I do know that writing with the goal of getting published generally doesn't make people happy. It's just that some people gotta do it.

I do know that a lot of scriptwriters in television get thier jobs by writing a "spec" episode of some show they know inside and out. That particular script seldom gets produced, but it can often result in being commissioned to do something else or join a writing team. I guess that's fan-fic of a sort...

Sam Taylor said...

You could say that all the Star Wars, Conan, Star Trek, and Forgotten Realms novels are also just a novel-form for fanfic. That's the view my wife has, anyway.

David Isaak said...

Well, Conan started as written stories and had a lineage after Robert E. Howard, so he's slightly different...but aside from Conan, I'd have to agree. Those are professional fan-fic.

So maybe she could write some of those?

sexy said...