Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Can Writing Be Taught?


I have spent a lot of time in the past trying to figure out why some very intelligent people cannot write very well, whether we refer to poetry or prose. On the other hand, I’ve met a lot of poorly educated people who shine as wordsmiths.

Obviously, “writing talent” is the first criterion for determining whether one can write effectively. But what does that mean? I’ve met some people who seem to have substantial talent, but they have never learned to harness it in order to write well. I suggest that those folks are the ones who can be taught to write.

What are some of the elements of writing talent? Not necessarily in this order or all-inclusive, I’d say 1. A way with words; 2. A sense of humor and irony; 3. A sense of and skill at using metaphors, including the vision to see connections between unlike things; 4. Enough experience with life to have something to write about; 5. The ability to improve what you’ve already written (revision); and 6. Curiosity.

You may be able to add other elements as well. I think curiosity is most important of all because it is the catalyst for the other elements. Contrary to the popular axiom, curiosity does not kill the cat. It is a vital organ for a writer.

There are many permutations of curiosity (you can fill in any blanks): 1. Interest; 2. Studiousness; 3. Compassion; and 4. The courage and desire to know truth, even if it hurts. In my experience with classes and workshops, and with one-on-one interaction with others who consider themselves writers, I observe that lacking a significant number of these elements and/or permutations renders you ineffective as a writer. I say that if you inherently lack enough of these, you will never be a writer of any note.

Admittedly, some skills can be taught. You can teach someone to make subjects and verbs agree, but these are mechanical devices, not talent. It is true, however, that mastery of the mechanical skills can aid in developing more advanced skills. You may even be able to teach someone how to use metaphors, but I’d say only if that person possesses the appropriate sensitivity (i.e., talent).  To be a writer, there has to be more power under the hood than just a mechanical engine.

I could blame a lot of things on our societal lack of communication skills and growing illiteracy: 1. Terrible and decaying public schools; 2. The greater prevalence of broken homes; 3. The cost of living that favors the rich, in that more and more only they can afford an education. These are largely factors that have impeded our growth, even as writers, but they don’t address the key issue. That is, a writer must possess a certain spirit, perhaps his/her unique spirit, that goes far beyond knowing when to use a comma or a semicolon. The same is true for artists, musicians, or anyone creating what we recognize as art.

Perhaps we could label the list of elements and permutations collectively as “power.” Sometimes the power to write is there, and the owner of that power does not know it. Someone may recognize potential in that person but could not honestly label him/her as a good writer. Maybe that person will never develop further. Or maybe the light will go on. I have seen this happen. Thankfully, it happened to me as well.

Even at a young age, I was always interested in words and exercised that interest at least on an occasional basis until I got out of the Navy and went back to college. I took a creative writing course and quickly discovered that my puny attempts at poetry did not see the world as others saw it. I recognized that I did not know how to communicate through poetry. Thankfully, the professor did not try to dictate how I should write. He did not suggest that I go to an MFA factory. Instead, he gave me a reading list, at the top of which was W. S. Merwin’s Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment. After reading this book, the light went on. I understood the compactness of poetic language, the subtlety of metaphor, and the unique voice that every worthy poet must eventually develop. This book did not make me a good poet, but it made me want to write and read. It turned on the power switch within me and allowed my skills to develop around that power. I knew then who I was and that I could do it.

So, if the power is already there, one can become a writer. I won’t speculate on the possibility of the power coming in to where it did not exist before. Perhaps such miracles do happen, but you don’t have to wait for a miracle. Instead, read and write long enough to see if the light comes on. The light is an awareness of one’s talents. It’s the knowledge where you feel certain that “I can do this.” It’s also the eagerness to do it, the curiosity that gives a cat new life.

8 comments:

Glenda C. Beall said...

Excellent advice, Robert. I think Curiosity is one of the most important traits a writer must have. Curiosity leads us to read more, to learn more and to write better.

Brenda Kay Ledford said...

Great article on writing, Robert. I enjoyed it very much. Great advice!

Brenda Kay Ledford said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

This question has been asked so often over the past years. The meaning of "taught" is the issue. Can a person be awakened, excited, transformed by words, by memories, by being able to enter another writers' world through stories, poems, drama? Of course. And this is what a good teacher does, opens the window shades, unlocks the doors, says "Here it is. The world, the words, the way out of what had at first seemed a prison but is in reality your life, waiting to be liberated, not from mortality, because that's the link in all our chains, but from its somnolence."

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Remember that old joke? "Give a roomful of monkeys typewriters and they will eventually write Shakespearean prose."–or something like that.

Does that mean the monkeys get a tutor and learn English? Put another way: Anybody or anything can be taught to write. But write great stuff? Not likely.


Writing great stuff means the confluence of talent, teaching and discipline in one person. It's like a three-legged stool–subtract one of those three and the other two won't hold up. These three elements don't get together in one person often, but when they do, we, the people, get great additions to our body of works.

JC Walkup

Anonymous said...

The question was posed as to the reality of being
able to teach someone how to write. I believe anyone
can be taught the rubrics of writing, just like they
can be taught how to read music, the use of color
theory in painting or how to sew. Will the student
be great after learning the basics? Not necessarily,
but they will be correct. They will be able to do
something that gives them personal satisfaction, even
though they might never excel or be famous.
I have learned how to correctly do many things. I
have excelled at some due to an innate ability,
others, I can just do; all are satisfying because I
know the right way to do them. I was taught.
So as to the question, can writing be taught? The
answer is yes.
Mary Mike Keller

Glenda Beall said...

Thanks to all of you who have taken part in this conversation. This is what we should be doing on this blog -- discussing writing and writers.
We are still open to more discussion on this post or any of the posts.
Let us hear from you.