Can Writing Be Taught?

A recent blog post at I Should Be Writing caught my attention. Can writing be taught? Is it something you can learn in a class or workshop? Or is it a you-have-it-or-you-don’t kind of thing? Before you answer read this article from The New Yorker.

Personally, I say no, workshops do not teach writing.

I took 2 creative writing workshops in college, was active in Critters and co-founded the Kazoo Books Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group with John Wenger (I frequently confound them as well). I would love to go to Viable Paradise or Clarion or Odyssey someday. Why would I spend so much time on this if I didn’t think it could teach me how to write?

Writing is a personal, internal business. That’s why it is scary. Creating is so subliminal, almost magical. Personally, while writing a first draft I am considering none of the “rules of writing” in my head while I go. It’s a trance. I don’t even know how to describe what I do when I do that, much less to teach someone else how to do it. I think this is why writers are so frustrated by the constant repetition of the question “where do you get your ideas?”

If flying is controlled falling then writing is controlled dreaming and it’s meaningless to compare a good dream to a bad one in the sense of quality. When people talk of a bad dream they usually are remembering a dream that produced a strong negative emotive experience (but was it a dream good at being a bad dream, for its impact?). If you have ever been bored to tears by someone recounting to you a dream they had that was so interesting you will see what I am getting at here. The impact of the dream loses something in the translation. Especially when their interesting dream is full of non sequiturs and object or person plasticity. They cannot convey to you the feelings their dream produced in them.

This is where the workshop teaches me.

Workshops teach you how successful you have been at recreating the story you experienced in your head for your audience. You don’t learn how to write, you learn how to revise, how to rewrite, how to edit the feelings you want into the code you have typed out. It’s not so much of a “do this this way” type of teaching as a “that didn’t work, try something else” method. The Wiley Coyote method, if you will.

I have learned a lot from the critiques of my writing, but I learn most from comparing my critique of some material to the others’ critiques of the same. Rules of Writing are not passed down in this method (I don’t know that they exist) but the Principles -Leviathans swimming in the murky depths- can be glimpsed in part. Those principles you get an inkling of, you can’t describe them fully, but they go right to the subconscious and THAT can inform the things you make up when you are in the trancelike state of writing a first draft.

Do you agree? What else good are workshops?

6 thoughts on “Can Writing Be Taught?

  1. Workshops don’t teach writing–they teach conforming to some standard of what is good writing (that is not real). I look at course materials for MFA programs and they are pretty ridiculous, I think. Why even do that? If your dream is writing you’re better off reading all the time and writing as much as possible–NOT being pedantic. It’s all very unmotivating and creativity-crushing to me.

  2. They can be creativity crushers. A buddy took a creative writing workshop at college and wrote SF. They ripped him to shreds. He walked away believing he wasn’t cut out for it. Now I don’t know if his stuff deserved shredding or experienced genre bias, but in developing as a writer he needed much more encouragement at that stage than criticism. That class did not teach him to write. It taught him not to try.

    I still believe they are of value, though. They teach not the writing part but the editing part (the two halves of yourself need to be separated during the writing process or you’ll never finish anything but a rockin’ first chapter). I have heard it called a bullcrap detector, that once honed you can turn on your own stuff. I think to succeed writing needs to eliminate awkwardnesses, and workshops can teach that.

    So how does one deal with the creativity crush? You can mitigate conforming to an unreal standard by taking the advice you think is helpful and ignoring the stuff that isn’t. That standard you bring up is a serious issue. In academia the standard is what constitutes as “literature” in this age. In the volunteer groups like mine it’s the consensus of what worked for your peers, be they published or prepublished. I deal with the crush by starting the next project before the last is on the block. I say to myself, “Well, they may not like this one, but the next one…the next one…”

    I agree wholeheartedly that the writer really needs to spend the time reading and writing as much as possible. Think of it as racking up training flight hours before taking over the 747. Reading the good books to see what is great about them is more difficult the better the book is. You keep forgetting to analyze plot stucture or technique because it keeps whisking you away. But don’t worry. That stuff is zapping into your subconscious, which doesn’t waste a thing. And as far as learning to write, it’s like pushups. You want to learn how to be awesome at pushups, do a lot of them.

  3. Hmm…I read somewhere once upon a time a while ago that the best ‘art’ is created by those who know everything or know nothing, the idea being if that one knows everything, one can create something new out of a mix of everything else, and that if one knows nothing, then it can truly be new without be corrupted by anything else.

    This is certainly true in music for the most part. The Motown musicians, for example, were amazing jazz musicians; they just applied their craft to R&B to create a completely new sound. Alternatively, there may be some gal working in a garage somewhere who is able to weld together the most amazing sculptures simply because their eyes are open.

    So going along with what you wrote (finally getting to the point)…yes, I think workshops can be a good thing, if one uses it merely as a tool to shape what one wants to create. More feedback can only serve to add a fine carving knife to the axe and hatchet you already have at your disposal when shaping your ideas from a rough block.

    Regarding feedback…I think that’s something different. One has to have confidence in one’s vision before one can clearly articulate it. If someone says that the vision is wrong, it’s having the conviction to stand up for it. The conviction may be wrong NOW, but it doesn’t mean that one might not ever get the conviction right. You’re an odd duck that way, Mr. Rock, because you have a grounding in what it means to believe in something larger, and I think that translates over to your ideas (however half-baked they may be).

    And Happy Father’s Day, Daddy-O.

  4. And for the love of a fine Cuban cigar…why do I have this ridiculous picture posted? Couldn’t it at least have a mustache?

  5. Thanks Nick! I had a great Father’s Day. We took Callie up to GR and visited the Frederick Meijer Gardens. She loved it. There have been times when creative conviction was forced on me, like, say when a certain someone wanted to be the worst band to ever play Harvey’s and they needed a drummer. I couldn’t drum a lick, but that wasn’t a problem you said, because we didn’t have any drums for me, and only 1.5 drumsticks to beat the air with. Then there’s you! There’s a lot to be learned in creative courage from a be-wigged frontman finishing a set when his pants have fallen down halfway through the song.

  6. That’s just what you look like to the rest of us. It’s a bit like hearing your voice on tape, isn’t it?

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