It Can Be Taught

Welcome to Sunday, My Prints Will Come!

Sundays are for writers around these parts, and today I want to open up a big can of…worms.

Were there ever actually cans of worms? Could you legitimately go to a fishing tackle store and buy a can of worms? Questions, questions.


A couple days ago, I read this post by Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds, and I also spent a rather significant amount of time scrolling through comments. The basic post is a reaction to the idea that you can’t teach writing. There was a lot of discussion in the comments about the nature of talent and creativity, and whether those things are indeed brought about by nature, or whether they can be nurtured into someone.

In the past, I’ve heard a few different theories on the matter. So here they are. Enjoy.

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbili...

This baby is Mozart. Or, you know, Ted Kaczynski. Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbilical cord has not yet been cut. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


This is the theory that you squiggle out of the womb with every bit of potential glowing like a radioactive rock in the center of your little baby body, just waiting for the optimum time to manifest itself to the world. Talent (or maybe murderous rampage) drips from your flailing fingers.

A kid playing soccer - bad

“I can’t use my hands? This is stupid.” A kid playing soccer – bad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


You’re born with a bunch of talent vessels. Some of them have different levels of gunk in them. Some of them have negative gunk. Some have more than others. As you get older, the levels can change depending on what you do with them.

English: Car going through Barwick Ford. Car m...

You can’t see him, but some guy just got an unwanted shower. English: Car going through Barwick Ford. Car makes a big splash as it goes through the Ford, watched by some children who kept just far enough away not to be splashed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


You find your potential when you’re just dopping along, doing your own thing. More often, you run smack into it and wonder why you weren’t looking where you were going in the first place.

Charlotte's Newborn Session

And pray your kid doesn’t actually pop out with wings. (License, per Flicker page: Creative Commons, attribution. Sharing and distribution okay. Photo credit: Christine ™)


God gives you talent, you lucky bastard. If you ask nicely with lots of pretty-pleases, he might give you more.

English: Leaving traces on soft sand dunes in ...

“It’s HOW far to the NYT Bestseller List?” English: Leaving traces on soft sand dunes in Tadrart Acacus a desert area in western Libya, part of the Sahara. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Through long arduous years of writing naked standing up with a fifth of bourbon in your hand, you will pen the Great National Something-or-Other. Or need a knee replacement and rehab.


So. Which is it?

Wendig’s argument is that writing can be taught. A lot of the comments disagreed in some way or another. Almost all of the comments on the page discussed talent or creativity and the masters and whether, in fact, you have any chance of writing or creating something transcendent and glorious if you start out a hack.

The basic equation that I tend to see in any argument like this is: inborn talent/propensity for greatness + sweat + time + MAGIC = Tchaikovsky (Or, since we’re talking about writing, Tolstoy. Or Tolkein. Alliterate as you will.)

Almost all the arguments against Wendig’s assertion that writing can be taught mentioned that mystical talent word. A lot called on creativity. One teacher flat out said that some kids can’t be taught, which I take huge offense over. If they’re not learning, you’re not teaching them right. Sorry. Every kid can learn. If I got a seventeen-year-old with severe dyslexia to try and read out loud in class (in front of kids who were all leaps and bounds ahead of him in reading and who had called him stupid) instead of just flipping me the bird and slamming the door behind him, there’s hope for just about anybody. But that’s beside the point.

A variation on the above equation is: inborn talent + passion + sweat + MAGIC = genius

You’ll notice that MAGIC usually comes into it, because people have a hard time quantifying what makes James Joyce special, or what it is about Wladyslawa Szymborska’s poetry that strums a jaunty tune on your heartstrings. In French, they call it the je ne sais quois, which sounds much fancier than the literal translation, which is, “No fucking clue.”

In all the arguments I read though, there was one thing lacking across the board. I don’t recall any single person mentioning the one thing that I believe creates that magic.


You can be playing the violin with symphonies by the time you’re five. You can have some level of natural propensity to understand and dissect what makes stories work without someone having to break down the elements of structure for you. (Stephen King learned this way, the trial and lots of error way.) You can break your knuckles on pages and pages. You can write for ten thousand hours or your million words of shit or whatever litmus test you want to go by that says you’ve mastered something. You can do all that. You can go to seminars and take courses and listen to gurus and meditate on the use of semicolons.

You can do all of those things.

What I think makes great writers great is their experience. All that other stuff just gives them tools to express it, to dredge it from within.

The beauty of experience is that everyone has a pretty equal shot at at it. Sure, I’m not going to hop on a shuttle to the moon any time soon, but just living gives you experience, and you can go out and look for more right outside. Talk to people. Hear their experiences.

Writing great works, to me, has less to do with being born this way or that way. It has less to do with innate senses of creativity, because let’s face it: some literary works are beautiful because of their simplicity. Not because a plot or a story was created or spun out of the ether, but because it captured the frailty of the human existence and pulled little parts of all of us into its words. Instead of being what I’d call creative, I’d just call it honest.

And then there are writers like Tolkein whose opus carried the underlying weight of a world war and the darkness that comes with it. Just last night, I watched a short video celebrating the final novel in Robert Jordan’s expansive Wheel of Time series, a series that did, as Tolkein did a hundred years ago, quite a similar thing. Jordan’s work is buttressed by the last thirty years, by the Gulf War and Iraq and a collapsing economy.

Can writing be taught?

I’d say an unequivocal yes. Someone in the comments to Wendig’s post wrote that history often decides who is great. Herman Melville only gained notoriety for Moby Dick once he was dead.

No one is born with the ability to write the next classic. To be the next great poet. Every one of the greats, no matter if they traveled widely or sat in their bedroom filling boxes with poetry they never intended to show to the world, had to learn. There are many ways to learn, from courses where people point you at certain truths to sitting in a busy square and listening to people.

I think if you sat any one of the masters of the writing craft down and asked them point blank how they did what they did, they’d blink at you and tell you to let them off the pedestal. People can be taught the mechanics of writing just as they can be taught to listen to their experiences — and as I’ve already said, I believe that those experiences are what really elevate writing to a new level.

I’ll hold to my argument. Greatness in writing comes from experiencing life and learning how to express that on the page. Some people find their best route early. Others take decades. But saying that writing can’t be taught, or that some people can’t learn to write extraordinary things — to me that’s patently false. Great writing connects to humanity, and the connection is experience.

The masters started somewhere too.

It just takes a willingness to work and listen. An attention to craft, certainly. But that can mean something different to different people. Story telling can be learned. Creativity can be learned. Writing can be learned.

What do you think about the equations of writing? Do you believe it can’t be taught? 



About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on January 13, 2013, in Sunday My Prints Will Come and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. According to Homer author Dan Coyle, it’s all about practice. Check out “The Talent Code” here:

  2. Well said! I totally agree. I remember I had a drama teacher in middle school who told me that just because I was talented at acting (read: “had a natural propensity for”) didn’t mean I would ever be great if I didn’t work as hard as the kids who weren’t such naturals. I didn’t listen, and continued to skate by on my “talent,” and now one of those kids who sweated and worked their butts off is working in Hollywood, and I’m, well, not. Natural affinities only take you so far, and only determine so much.

  3. I believe anyone can be taught the craft of writing and even the components of creating a good story. The only part I’m not sure of is if the process of coming up with and recognizing the idea for a good story that will capture interest can be taught. Anyone can put the components together, but if the idea isn’t good, it isn’t going to matter. I also believe some people are more likely to be successful than others. For example, if someone has trouble relating to people, they will also have trouble creating characters people can relate to.

    • I think James Scott Bell talked about that in one of his books, and I think it’s very possible to learn to differentiate between a good idea and a crappy one. It takes getting familiar with what’s out there, a lot of reading, and some analysis, but I don’t think it’s an all or nothing skill. Some great writers have written books with “WTF ideas” that end up bombing. This is something I’ve worked on in my own writing to decide what projects to invest in. I used to think my first book idea was a great one, but in hindsight it was derivative and unoriginal. I think a lot of the time, the quality of a premise can be quantified to an extent and that people can learn to differentiate between what makes a good premise and what flops one.

      • Yes, but I don’t think everyone has an idea like Windup Girl, or Kraken, or The Night Circus (just a few examples) in their heads. The ability to come up with ideas like that is not one I think you can teach. I could be wrong.

  4. I liked what Stephen King said in his book, On Writing. There are poor writers, compotent writers, good writers, and great writers. You cannot teach a poor writer anything. They were born poor, they will die poor. Great writers cannot be taught either. They were born great they will die great. But- you can teach a compotent writer to be a good writer.

    • Hmmm. I disagree with that idea. I think we all start out poor writers, regardless of where we end up. No one’s first ever piece of writing is brilliant (at least I’ve yet to hear of anyone who sat down to write a story and just nailed it immediately with no practice) — there’s a learning curve for everyone. Where we end depends on all the factors I discussed in the post. I think that for a poor writer to become a good writer (or a great writer), it requires a shift in mindset as well as a desire to see the world differently, but the mind can be trained to think critically, and it can be trained to think out of the box. Because of that I think that anyone who wants to improve can.

      • I don’t disagree with you.

        Okay let me elaborate. There are people who mentally and physically cannot do certain things, because of one thing or another, and there are other people who are born with advantages over the rest of us (the percentages for both would probably be very small). Primarily, His point was that ninety blah, blah percent of people would fall into the category of competent writers or good writers. In other words, competent writers (beginners) can be taught to be good writers (experts). You can’t teach a poor writer to be a competent writer, and you can’t teach a good writer to be a great writer. He never mentions who or what decides where people fall, because he knew his message was relative. I believe it was his way of saying yes people can be taught to write, but there are always exceptions to the rules for one reason or another.

        I hope I didn’t offend you when said, you can’t teach poor writers anything. I’m a novice myself, and I’m not trying to call novice writers, poor writers. Poor writers would be people who literally can’t learn to write. The word poor is not be interpreted as derogatory or negative.

        When I saw that your first words were Hmmm, I thought, oh crap.

      • Nope, you didn’t offend me!

  5. This post made me think of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and the 10,000 hours rule about success, then I read this article from the BBC Why Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule is Wrong

    Of course, I used to believe the inspiration for art came from some magical place and you just happened to have it or not and then I noticed that all the writers I admired had that other thing in common, they worked hard for a really long time, they were obsessed you could say, and maybe that’s the difference.

    Just a thought 🙂

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