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.
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.
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.
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.
God gives you talent, you lucky bastard. If you ask nicely with lots of pretty-pleases, he might give you more.
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?
Posted on January 13, 2013, in Sunday My Prints Will Come and tagged emmie mears, Great Comet, great writers, Gulf War, Herman Melville, James Joyce, Moby Dick, Robert Jordan, stephen king, talent, Wheel of Time, writing, writing craft, writing process. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.