Monday, January 21, 2008

Education Rears Its Head Once More

Emma Darwin, who makes a habit of thoughtful posts, has a nice piece on her blog about the never-ending topics of "rules" and whether or not writing can be taught.

I came across an interesting essay by Richard Ford that touches on the same topic. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that Ford is a graduate of the University of California Irvine Writing MFA program. Ford won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, as have two additional UCI MFA alumni, Michael Chabon and Whitney Otto. The MFA program at UCI also produced Alice Sebold, David Benioff, and bestselling mystery writers T. Jefferson Parker and Nevada Barr.)

Ford's essay opens with this paragraph:

Can you teach someone to write? I'm asked that a lot--usually by Europeans who think you can't, and who think Americans are school-crazy, and that we believe anything from small-engine repair to a faith in the deity can be cooked up into a syllabus and successfully imparted by tutelage with a degree at the end. These doubters--I suppose they're purists (always a rogue element in the arts)--believe that only mysterious talent, inspiration, and something else they're not entirely sure of can ever produce a real writer. "Real" is always stressed, as if Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Connor, Larry McMurtry and Raymond Carver, were all ersatz writers who would have been genuine only if they'd just stayed home and suffered, and not gone to Iowa or Stanford; and as if anything along the way to a writer's vocation could ever free any of us from a need for talent, inspiration, and something else not quite definable.

I think some of the debate on this topic results from the word "taught," which stirs up visions of a very specific course of instruction, with individual skills being presented, digested, and regurgitated; and lists of "rules" being photocopied and handed out. If such classes exist, I've never heard of them. Perhaps some classes in 'composition' are like that.

The writing "classes" I'm familiar with are all workshops--the literary equivalent of a studio class in art. The teacher may occasionally deliver a talk on some topic, or assign a reading that illustrates the many ways a story can be told, but most of the "class" is simply reading and critiquing participants' manuscripts--trying to see where they succeed and where they fail. (In my opinion, analyzing for yourself the infinite number of ways a manuscript can go wrong is the most useful part of a workshop; the feedback you get on your own writing may or may not be all that useful.)

There are surely some writers--Jack London comes to mind--who fit the solitary genius model (though I sometimes have the urge to edit his prose), but most writers in their formative years seem to have had other writers, and often a circle of writers, with whom they shared their work and argued about technique. (Although he made a point of minimizing the effect other writers had on his work, even Hemingway learned from others, and Gertrude Stein in particular affected his ideas of how prose and punctuation could be stripped down.)

A writing workshop is a sort of artificial writers circle. "Artificial" is a word that gets a bad rap nowadays; it's basic meaning is simply human-made (and it once meant "artful" and "cunning"). True, it lacks the spontaneity of, say, the circle that arose in 1920s Paris, but I'm not sure that's an altogether bad thing; you are likely to find more diversity in an "artificial" assembly of strangers than in a group who are drawn together by affinity.

Workshops seem to be especially useful for writers whose background is in English Literature, since Eng Lit makes some students (not all, of course) believe that theme, symbolism, message, and embedded cleverness are fiction's engines, when in fact these are outgrowths or ornaments of story. In the hurly-burly of a community-college writing workshop (the lower down the ladder of academic prsestige, the better), these sorts of writers will learn that it doesn't matter how vital their theme or how multilayered their symbolism may be if no one wants to read the damn story.

Is there such a thing as a bad workshop? Oh, assuredly--I enrolled in one once (and left after two sessions). There are also bad critique groups. And bad agents, and bad editors, and bad bestsellers. For that matter, there are bad math classes. If you don't have the "built-in, shock-proof BS detector" that Hemingway thought was a writer's most-needed gift, you'll be in trouble in a bad workshop. But you'll be in trouble in anything connected with writing anyhow.

Strictly speaking, I don't think writing workshops "teach" writing. What they do is look very closely at writing in progress, and at revision of that writing. Yes, you may be exposed to the occasional workshop cliche ("Show, don't tell"), but if the workshop is halfway decent, you'll also be exposed to writing that breaks those rules with great success.

As Bill Brohaugh once remarked, the only real rule is "Never start a sentence with a comma." (I've tried to figure out a justifiable way to do this. I'm still hoping to manage it some day--stay tuned.)


Matt Curran said...

Hi David

After participating in a Masters Degree in Writing, I completely agree with you here. You can't "teach" writing (and those who say you can are often selling something), but you can guide and an inspire good writing. The problems usually occur when those who think you can “teach” try to and like you say, end up doing it badly. Writers' Groups are another thing entirely - if you get lucky, they can be invaluable.

In the end, I reckon the best way to learn the craft is to keep writing and keep reading. Maybe Ford thinks this is a puzzling approach - but I didn't get much out of my year on the MA and I think quitting was probably a good thing. But then, I am European...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

Oh, I agree. Lots and lots of writing and reading are the essential ingredients, and without both them you are guaranteed to get nowhere. (I've seen some terrible, terrible writing by people who write constantly but almost never read. I never knew that non-reading writers existed.)

I know someone in an MFA program who isn't getting that much out of the process in the way of useful feedback--but does get two years to do nothing but write, and is making useful contacts in publishing.

I've never been enrolled in a "writing program" like an MFA of an MACW. What I have done is attended semester-long workshops run by writers whose work I'd read and liked. As I said, in many ways, I think these are really just a sort of arbitrary Writers Group.

There are bad Writers Groups out there, too--ones that either become their own little society, or ones that were good but get stuck in a rut.

But in whatever context, it's nice to have someone to talk writing with in the real world.

Aliya Whiteley said...

Perhaps what distinguishes a good writer from a poor one is not the quality of the advice they get, but their ability to filter and apply any advice as necessary. I'm a member of a great online writing group, with 1000 members at least. Some leave indepth comments and I might agree with one or two of them, some try to make the writer feel bad or incompetent for not applying perceived rules, and some just want to say 'Yeah! Keep Going!' The trick is to work out what category you're dealing with and to take what you can from that person. It's the writer's responsiblity to improve, not the group's, isn't it?

Tim Stretton said...

Great post, David.

Entirely agree that an English degree is antithetical to learning how to write--but it does allow the student to spend three years reading work from people who did know how to write. But all that guff about themes & motifs certainly gets in the way of the essential fictional craft of engaging a reader's interest and getting them to turn the page.

I do think, though, that the core of writing cannot be taught. Yes, a good teacher can give a grounding in technique that goes well beyond "show, don't tell"; but the nub of how to make artistic decisions is dependent on an instinct, not a learned skill.

I agree with Matt that the best way to improve is to read a lot, and write a lot. But even then, without the mystery ingredient, you ain't making Coca-Cola...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Aliya--

Boy, that's the truth--learning what feedback to ignore is the crux of the matter.

But I have that problem with the voices in my head, too: sometimes they make spectacularly bad suggestions.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

I don't think anyone would deny that a certain spark is needed.

But there are some writers who have the spark but don't have a full grasp of the technical facility.

In fact, I should probably stuff this into another post...

Anonymous said...

OMFG! "... the only real rule is Never start a sentence with a comma." I died with laughter when I read that. Used it in my workshop last night. It killed!