Can writing be taught? And what do writing teachers teach?

2658174628_049a403892_bThe other night I was watching The Rewrite, in which a Hollywood scriptwriter reluctantly becomes a writing teacher. In the early part of the film he asserts that writing can’t be taught.

In some ways, I agree.

But wait, you might say. And you might brandish a kettle at me, or a pot as black as night. What, Ms Morris, are you doing here? On your blogs, in your seminars, with your nifty tips and nailing books?

Well, I hope I’m being useful, but it’s interesting to consider how much of a writer is made by what is taught, and how much is … something else.

You do the work
No matter how many courses you take or books you read, they won’t build your facility for you. You’re the one playing the instrument, and you need years of practice and exploration. The fabled 10,000 hours to achieve mastery, if we’re to believe Malcolm Gladwell.

stephen kingActually, at two hours every day, that’s 13 and a half years – which may not be encouraging to know. But this figure does perhaps explain why some characters doubt the use of teaching when it comes to making writers. Indeed Stephen King says in On Writing: ‘to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot’. And: ‘the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself’.

Time for T
Dare we mention the T-word? Talent? There, it’s said. What might talent be?

I guess we could call it the qualities that can’t be taught. Imagination, a grace with the written word, the tuning of mind and soul that sees unique significance and connections.

We should add the disposition to persist for 10,000 hours (or however much it might actually be) – because talent will only last so far. Before Picasso could have a blue period, he learned to draw properly so he knew what he was doing to his audience. Then he could mess around all he wanted.

So what am I doing here?
A writing teacher can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. We can’t do the work for you. In that case, what am I teaching?

1 Awareness – of how stories work on the intellect and heart, the invisible tricks that writers use, some of which they’re probably not aware of.

2 Methodology – ways to cope with the difficulties when we’re out of ideas, disappointed with our work. And how to organise the tons of material we have, changes of heart, brainwaves for new directions.

3 Critical thinking in ways that are helpful rather than destructive.

4 Ways to discover what we should be writing, and how to fulfil our distinctive potential.

5 The joy of creativity, of the pursuit of craftsmanship, the respect and wonder of what we can do with printed marks or pixels. I will always be amazed how prose seems infinitely richer than photographs or film. A great piece of writing is worth a thousand pictures.

6 We’re also sharing our own curiosity. I’m first a writer, then a teacher. I’m on my own odyssey with another ornery book and it’s nice to talk to those who understand.

Thanks for the pic, Kate McCarthy

If you liked this post, you might like this episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss a tricky question – what, exactly is writing talent?

Over to you. Can writing be taught? What aspects of writing can’t be? What do you learn from writing teachers? If you’re a writing teacher, what do you teach?

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  1. #1 by acflory on February 22, 2015 - 12:02 pm

    I’m glad you named the elephant in the room. Personally, I believe the craft can and should be taught. Beyond that, however, it’s up to those pesky genes.

  2. #3 by change it up editing on February 22, 2015 - 1:36 pm

    In the course of working with authors through the editing process, I’ve seen some amazing growth. These are the writers who have great stories to tell but need a bit of focused “teaching” to bring out their best. Awareness is a huge piece of that puzzle; you can’t fix something that hasn’t been identified.

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 22, 2015 - 6:25 pm

      Hi John! Yes, indeed, good teaching can make an immense difference. And part of the fun of teaching is figuring out how to help the writer learn.

  3. #5 by Lisa Nicholas on February 22, 2015 - 1:57 pm

    You have nailed it. And I think the key ingredient is one to often ignored, precisely because it can’t be taught (although it is learned over a lifetime): “the tuning of mind and soul that sees unique significance and connections.”

  4. #7 by DRMarvello on February 22, 2015 - 2:41 pm

    I think talent is mostly a combination of desire, persistence, and imagination. With that in mind, I don’t think writing can be taught so much as writing can be learned. The student must have the desire to improve, the persistence to keep trying, and the imagination to create an interesting story.

    The keys that unlock our imagination are different for each of us. That’s why I think it’s important to keep exploring and learning. Writing teachers give us the possibilities. It’s up to us to assemble a process that works for us and to be willing to change that process as we discover new approaches.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 22, 2015 - 6:27 pm

      Hi Daniel – ‘writing can be learned’ – interesting way to switch it around. And yes, writing teachers (which includes editors) are to an extent like midwives. The writer does the vast bulk of the work. The teacher or editor gives guidance and holds the writer’s hand. And sometimes administers doses of useful substances.

  5. #9 by tomburkhalter on February 22, 2015 - 2:51 pm

    One of the lessons I learned when I started editing a newsletter, working with people who could tell stories but had no real ambition to write, was that my job as an editor wasn’t to rewrite the story until it reached my own personal idea of “good” (let’s leave “perfect” out of this!). I saw this when I looked at a sheet of paper where there were more red lines, insertions, and proofreader’s marks than actual text. What I learned to do was to leave my contributors their own voice. So isn’t that what a writing teacher does? Hold up a mirror, so to speak, and help the writer find or refine their own voice, their own story?

    • #10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 22, 2015 - 6:29 pm

      Hi Tom! Nice to see you here again. Good example – when we work with other writers we still have to give them room to be themselves. There are a lot of situations where I’ve declined to work with authors because I know my vision and theirs won’t be in tune and they would hit it off better with someone else. It’s quite a responsibility.

  6. #11 by Jackie on February 22, 2015 - 5:32 pm

    Reblogged this on Tomorrow Beckons.

  7. #13 by TheReviewingFangirl on February 22, 2015 - 5:57 pm

    People can teach how to write different kinds of papers, but the quality and everything else is up to the writer.

    • #14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 22, 2015 - 6:30 pm

      ‘The quality is up to the writer’ – exactly, Fangirl. We set ourselves our standards.

  8. #15 by authorleannedyck on February 22, 2015 - 9:34 pm

    I’d suggest substituting the word nurtured for taught. Beginning writers — no, correction, all writers should be nurtured.

  9. #17 by bridget whelan on February 23, 2015 - 12:41 am

    Reblogged this on BRIDGET WHELAN writer and commented:
    Musicians take lessons and artists go to art school, but people frown if you mention casually that you’ve enrolled in a creative writing course. It’s almost as if writing is like charisma – you either have it or you don’t.

    The great writers of the past didn’t go back into the classroom before they penned their masterpiece, non-writing friends mutter darkly, but it seems to me that courses are another way of doing something writers have always done: learn their craft, experiment while they learn, and share the results with others who understand the challenge, before sending it out to the wider world.

    Yeats set up The Rhymers’ Club in the last decade of the 19th century, long before he became a celebrated playwright and poet. He and his friends met at the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese just off Fleet Street in central London and, like writing groups today, they (self) published two anthologies.

    While art comes from within, you can learn literary techniques that will help you to be the writer you want to be. Against-the-clock writing exercises might seem very contrived, but the poet Ted Hughes believed that they help writers to overcome their inhibitions:

    “The compulsion towards haste overthrows the ordinary precautions … Barriers break down, prisoners come out of their cells.”

    But I have to admit not always. Ten minutes can seem like an awfully long time when it’s the wrong exercise, you’re in the wrong mood, or you’re saddled with the wrong tutor (It happens). Mind you, even that experience is an important lesson for writers. We are too ready to beat ourselves up if a passage of writing refuses to sing. What we need to do is accept and move on. Work through it. Write.
    Here author, tutor and mentor ROZ MORRIS gives her view on the age-old question

    • #18 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 23, 2015 - 9:19 am

      Love your contribution here, Bridget! We don’t have much evidence for how the writers of the past learned their craft – except for these great examples you give here. And there’s definitely a perception that you’ve either ‘got it’ or you haven’t, because writing is a skill we’ve all done ever since we were at school.
      But writing as an art is not the same as the writing you use to do your geography homework, pass a chemistry exam, make a shopping list, fill in a job application. It’s not even the same as the writing you use to do a job in journalism. It’s its own discipline, and to do it well takes time and dedication. Most of us who have the inclination are working at it in perpetuum, on a constant quest to notice what works and what doesn’t. Taking classes, being edited, reading specifically on our subject are topping up a process that’s already going on.
      I didn’t know about Ted Hughes and his timed exercises. I like that! Thanks for a great comment and a generous reblog.

  10. #19 by bridget whelan on February 23, 2015 - 12:47 am

    Great contribution to the debate Roz. I’ve reblogged it on http://bridgetwhelan.com/

  11. #20 by jcucreativewriting on February 23, 2015 - 7:49 am

  12. #23 by Erin Bartels on February 23, 2015 - 1:44 pm

    Excellent breakdown of what writing teachers and blogs on writing can do–and what they can’t. In our ultrademocractic mindset today people shudder at words like talent–but we all know when we see it.

    • #24 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 23, 2015 - 5:15 pm

      Thank you, Erin – and great to see you here. I’ve followed your blog for a while!

  13. #25 by Laurean Brooks on February 24, 2015 - 6:28 pm

    The grammar rules, creating conflict, a great plot, interesting, characters…in other words, the craft of writing can be taught. But, I tend to cling to the theory that some writers have a God-given ability to spin a story. Take that away and a story can fall flat. It’s like comparing a gifted pianist who has an ear for music, and been taught, to one who doesn’t have an ear for music, but who still hits all the right keys. There seems to be an annointing on the gifted pianist, never mind that the other one practices just as much.

    • #26 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 24, 2015 - 8:09 pm

      The musical ear is a good comparison, Laurean. And a lot of the most able people I teach have some parts of the art exactly right – by a combination of instinct, and the inclination to practise.

  14. #27 by juliecroundblog on September 25, 2016 - 11:03 am

    When I began to read this post I was thinking of eight year olds but I realised that you meant the kind of creative writing that older people learn at classes. I have been to a very bad class where the tutor used it to promote himself and a very good class where we were introduced to ‘voice’ and ‘structure’ elements that I had not been part of my thinking when I first wrote stories.
    I do wonder if a degree is necessary, or even helpful. I think reading is the main ingredient for a capable writer and being read to as a child is probably more influential than we can imagine.

    • #28 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 25, 2016 - 7:35 pm

      Ha, Julie, I hadn’t thought anyone might think I meant child education! Perhaps I’ve been an adult too long. I agree that most of our learning comes from awareness and curiosity, and a love of reading. And that probably has to start with somebody showing us the way.

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