For eight years during the late 80’s and early 90’s I directed the Paris Writers’ Workshop. Our location, Paris, France, provided the enormous benefits of attracting outstanding writers who were also outstanding teachers, and an international clientele.
One year, a known Canadian writer gave a guest lecture to an adoring audience. This writer was most known for her short stories but also wrote novels and plays. It is said she published her first story in The New Yorker when she was nineteen. She was a literary force and the audience was humbly awed…. Until she said, in response to a question: Either you have it or you don’t. Either you write, or you don’t. Writing cannot be taught, and it cannot be learned.
From my perch I watched rapt faces fall into disbelief. Seriously? Nobody can help me learn to write? Some individuals dared to challenge her statement, but mostly, people were too stunned to respond. The writer based her statements on her experience as a Writer in Residence at the University of Toronto. One can only guess what a disastrous encounter that must have been for students and instructor alike!
I took our guest to dinner and said, Surely you don’t believe that. Surely, between the Solzhenitsyn’s of the world, who wrote on scraps of paper and tucked those scraps into chinks in the wall, later to compile them into beautiful prose, and the amount of crap that is “out there,” there is a middle ground…people who want to write, love to write, but simply need a bit of help and guidance. Surely those people can be taught, and they can learn, and as a result, become better writers.
She didn’t budge.
Clearly I didn’t buy her argument as I continued to direct the workshop for years and participated in summer workshops myself, and finally, completed my degree in Writing for Children at Vermont College. I know I’m a better writer. Was I a writer before I started learning about writing? I don’t know. Full disclosure: I submitted my first short story for publication when I was twenty years old under a pseudonym, and I kid you not, the first line of the story was, It was a dark and stormy night. I never heard back from the publication.
Two years ago I taught a university class in Writing for Children. For the most part, it was a disaster. Of the twelve students in the class, three had a true interest in writing and knew how to write. By that, I mean they could write with proper spelling, punctuation, grammar and usage. They also clearly loved words, and played with words. If The cat walked across the balcony was good, The cat crept across the balcony was better! They understood the power of verbs.
Probably because the course I taught was offered in the School of Continuing Education, most of the students were there because they simply needed a credit. Consequently, they were not interested in the excitement of the printed word, they were challenged by basic rules of writing prose, and they couldn’t wait to get the whole thing over with.
So what’s the point?
Maybe learning to write is similar to learning to waterski. If you have no agility or balance, you probably shouldn’t even try getting on skis. But if you have those basic characteristics, and you’re brave enough to try, you will quickly learn the rules of shifting your weight for turns, balancing your weight for a smooth ride, dropping one ski, and maybe even jumping over ramps! The sky is the limit.
Brave enough to try. That is a crucial component of learning to write. I believe anyone who writes for the mere pleasure of it, delights in finding a better word, loves to imagine what will happen next, and is brave enough to put that prose before the eyes of a qualified teacher, will become a better writer.
And maybe teaching someone to write is really a matter of degree. Some of us need more teaching than others. Over the years of my own development I recall those AHA moments: when I learned to ax the adverbs, show don’t tell, forget passive verbs, kill my darlings, and so forth and so own.
On the other hand, I recall a conversation I had with one of the first Writers in Residence at the Paris Writers’ Workshop, D. M. Thomas, author of The White Hotel. I love the book and consider it highly complicated in both plot and language. When I asked him how long it took him to write it, he mused, and said, Well, I had it in my head for about a year and a half. Then, I just sat down and wrote it.
Gulp. There really are writers who can do that.
The great majority of us struggle, however. We labor over the point of view, the language choices, the pace, the continuity, the sense of it all… We ask for advice. We give up. We start again. And we believe each step makes it all better. We’re developing our craft; learning.
Now, if someone would just figure out how to teach a writer to keep her butt in the chair and write…. I’ll sign up for that class immediately!