Friday, January 20, 2012
Can you be taught how to write?
It's may be strange to think about the question of whether or not great writing can be taught--especially for someone who is about to teach another class on Novel Writing at the University of Virginia. But here goes. I would say yes--and no.
To just say that yes, you can go get an MFA, learn everything you need to and then go on to win a Nobel Prize seems wrong. I believe there is something special in a great writer that is present from birth. Writers have a drive to tell stories, a unique point of view, and the ability to live without the company of others for long stretches of time. None of these qualities can be taught.
But I would be doing myself and other writing teachers a disservice if I claimed we don't matter a whit. It's tremendously exciting to work with a student and see their writing grow and change. To be part of the moment when writing fiction "clicks" for them, and they finally see how they can write the kind of wonderful stories that they enjoy reading--that's incredibly satisfying for me.
So who would I like to learn from? All my favorites, of course. I have been lucky enough to hear Stephen King, SJ Rozan, Laurie King, Sue Grafton, Harlan Coban and Lee Child all talk about their writing life and their process. And I've learned something from every single one of them. But I've learned from so many more by reading their books. Every writer should read widely as part of their personal MFA program.
I hesitate to name one master I'd like to study with one-to-one because not every great writer is also a great teacher. I've been lucky enough to have had a few great writing teachers in my life for everything from poetry to screenwriting, and very few of them shared their writing with me. I took their classes for their teaching skills, not their writing skills.
So what does a great writing teacher do that makes them so great? They push their students farther out of their comfort zone. They point out what their students are doing right and help them to become braver about taking risks and trying new things. They help the student see the bigger picture of the work and how to see it as a cohesive whole. And they gently correct grammatical errors, tense problems and shifting points of view in order to help their students become better editors of their own work.
So many thanks to all those teachers over the years who read my work and helped teach me how to be a better writer--and a better teacher. Which reminds me, I've got to polish up that syllabus. Class starts in just two weeks!