There was an article recently that caused a bit of a stir in the scribosphere.
Basically it rehashed the conundrum of whether good writing can actually be taught, or whether it is one of those inborn talents that you either have or don’t have in your soul, or DNA, or intestines, or wherever inborn talent resides. It isn’t the most original quandary ever debated. Damon Knight said he felt that writing couldn’t be taught, only learned, and that it couldn’t be learned by reading a book. He stated that in his book “Creative Short Fiction—the classic guide to writing short fiction.” If that wasn’t enough, he said that even if writing could be taught or learned from a book that it would probably stifle creativity by overemphasizing conscious invocation of processes that should arise organically and spontaneously from within the writer.
No, I really mean WOW.
I don’t want to tell you how much money and how many person years I’ve poured into attempting to learn to write. Especially weighed against how much I’ve earned back directly from writing. Did you catch that little rhetorical qualification? While I was a scientist most of my adult earning life, a lot of my productivity and job performance was only accessible through and assessable via my writing. All kinds of writing. Refereed scientific papers, policy documents, book chapters, administrative professional documents, reviews, speeches, you name it.
Of course none of that is the same as writing fiction. Lord, have I found that out in the last ten years. Nonetheless, it has served as a foundation of writing competency in terms of raw communication at the most basic level. Yet, it probably also has left its own legacy of bland banality plastered across the face of my writing muse needing to be wiped away (unlearned?) in my pursuit of writing as art. Specifically, the art of storytelling. The latter, of course is really what the debate has always been about.
Well, there is what we genre types refer to sneeringly as LitFic. We snear at LitFic in large part because LitFic writers have taught us to snear. I bring up LitFic mainly because to this day I am not certain that LitFic writers universally agree that writing assumes the communication of a story. At least not what most readers and writers of genre fiction (the vast bulk of fiction written and read in the world) would call stories.
I’ve taken several creative writing classes at the university/college level and at different colleges, both as a student in pursuit of a degree (a million years ago) and for personal interest as an adult. The problems I saw were mainly that the courses/instructors were “forced” by convention to teach the party line that LitFic was THE standard and the only standard by which to judge creative writing, and as such was the “norm” inculcated into students.
The simple definition of a story, let alone any of the foundations of storytelling, were never specifically “taught” in any of my institutional training. As I came back to writing “stories” in midlife I have often reflected on how implausible it is to conceive of teaching literature or writing without teaching story telling. Yet, I experienced it.
As far as the talent vs. no talent debate goes, my guess is that the “truth” is somewhere between the extreme statements. As in any endeavor, either you have some talent or you don’t. If you have talent you will start from a higher baseline, and it is easier to nurture, and you are likely to reach greater heights with coaching. If you don’t have talent, you are starting from a lower baseline, but you can still improve, but are less likely to achieve greatness (whatever definition applies).
There are all kinds of practical and institutional financial and ethical questions that surround this issue. And it isn’t restricted to writing. Take any talent, music, sculpture, dance, chemistry, physics, math, they all demand a combination of physical and/or mental dexterity, coupled with discipline and practice. Yet, there will always be those that just seem to have more of a knack than the average Joe or Jane. It doesn’t mean the rest of humanity shouldn’t pursue a given discipline if it is their heart’s desire. But it probably suggests there is a reason why double majors and fallback plans were invented.
So, why am I even blogging about this? Guess what, the local community college has asked me to teach some adult enrichment courses on creative writing. I had to give that decision a good long think.
I admit my ego got an itty bitty boost from being asked. But I also have this inner critic that weighs what I have to offer against what I would want to have on offer to me if I were to take a course. And as I’ve said, I’ve taken my fair share of writing courses.
What I have found out in recent years is that an element that is often left completely out of creative writing courses (beyond the lack of teaching what a story actually is), is something of a reality check about the writing world that begins at the edge of your desk. If someone only writes for themselves, as I’ve heard many people claim, then they really don’t need to learn anything. I honestly don’t believe it when folks tell me that they are just writing for themselves. Do they put a match to the paper as soon as they finish writing? Of course not. Even if they are only putting the writing in a box in order to read what they have written a decade later, they are actually writing for someone else to read what they have written. I say that because of the time machine we live in– that little thing called reality that carries us along and ages and changes us, and hence makes us a different person than the one that placed the paper in the box– that cardboard time capsule.
Twenty years down the road you, or your heirs, or the guy at the recycle center will pull out that paper and read it, and they will put a value on it based on what you said and how well you said it.
I think there is worth in leaving well-spoken evidence of one’s existence in the wake of our passing lives.
I also know that many aspiring writers are long on desire and short on exposure to the reality of the publishing world. I’m better off in that regard than most ordinary folks, but also very mindful of how much more I have to learn. And if someone is just getting started it is helpful to teach them what the marketplace (not just English Teachers and doting friends and relatives) look for in writing. It feels darn fine to sell a story and I encourage anyone who has ever written a scrap of anything to learn these expectations and submit some of their work to the marketplace. There is always a lot of rejection to endure, but the sweet taste of victory when an editor offers to buy a story is hard to beat.
Getting paid for making stuff up. Making friends by making stuff up. Plugging made up stuff into other people’s minds and souls and causing them to react emotionally and intellectually to it. Those are thrills that can’t be had any other way than by writing.
So, I may never be an Earnest Hemingway, Pat Conroy, Neil Gaiman, Khaled Hosseini, Paolo Bacigalupi, Clive Cussler, Richard Russo, Joyce Carol Oates, James Lee Burke, or James Patterson or whoever your favorite writer is. But I would like to hone my craft and help others do likewise. I would like to give writing an honest go, and if I can, I’d like to share some pointers with others who share in this most wonderful of all forms of delusion. If nothing else, we aspiring writers can teach ourselves to find joy in what we do by doing the best we possibly can. So, that is what I’ll be saying when I step into the classroom, hoping to find some writers looking back my way who could easily have more talent than I do.