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09 June 2008

Can Writing Be Taught?

I know a successful author who's proud of the fact that she's never read a book on writing craft…and another who criticizes every fiction workshops in existence, claiming that, to paraphrase B. B. King, "If you gotta ask, you'll never know." At the other end of the spectrum are those who attend every session at the national RWA conference, feverishly taking notes and yearning to glean a bit of writing wisdom. These two groups of authors seem to be at odds: those who think writing can't be taught, and those who strive to learn all they can.

I lean to the second camp, to be sure. Academia has always been a comfortable world for me, and I naturally gravitate toward studying. But besides that, I honestly believe that while some have a natural gift for storytelling, there is still plenty for every author to learn. A perfect book hasn't been written yet, to the best of my knowledge.

I've been mulling over this question a lot in the past year, trying to decide if I wanted to take my quest for craft to the ultimate level: an MFA. Some of the advice I got surprised me:

"You won't learn anything there that you couldn't learn on your own."

"Academia isn't the right place to learn anything creative."

"Creative writing can't be taught."

"It's a waste of money."

I rebelled at these comments. Sure, some aspects of writing may be innate, but that doesn't mean we can't shore up our weaknesses or hone our natural abilities.

One of my favorite books of writing inspiration is If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. A writer of short humorous essays, I don't believe Ms. Ueland was ever published much. But this little handbook, published back in 1930, is still in print. That alone speaks volumes about how wonderful and useful it is. In the book, she discusses all sort of topics pertaining to the writer's heart and mind. She compares writers to painters, actors, doctors -- any pursuit that has a creative side.

And that's where I found my answer. Music can be taught, obviously -- no one disdainfully suggests that composers leave off studying music theory, music history, or great composers of the past. Imagine someone telling a modern composer, "Oh, you can't learn anything in an academic music program that you can't learn on your own. Why do you want to read all those scholarly essays about Beethoven? Getting an MFA would be a waste of money."

Painters are also given much encouragement to study -- look at the influence of different schools on the work of many artists, from Gentileschi to Jasper Johns.

Writers seem to be singled out for the negative view. Is this because creative writing is taken less seriously than music or painting? Perhaps it's because we use words; our tools are common to everyone. Even parrots and gorillas can use words. Are the people who espouse this view simply negative about creative writing in general, thinking that studying fiction is about as useful as studying basket weaving? (If you've never tried it, let me assure you that basket weaving is every bit as difficult as any other craft. Those elaborate baskets from times gone by end up in museums for a very good reason).

That explains the perspective of the non-writer, perhaps, but what of the novelists who eschew workshops? Is there an innate overconfidence (for lack of a better, less judgmental word) on the part of authors who have so much talent, they don't feel any need to study craft?

I have no idea. All I know is, I'll be starting an MFA program this week, and I hope to learn a lot in the process.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What aspects of writing do you think can be taught? What aspects do you think one must simply be born with? And lastly, have you ever read a perfect book?

14 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

What a provocative topic, Doreen!

I have long held that writing, like acting, is a craft. But it's also a gift from God, the Universe, or good genes; and someone is either born with the talent to write -- or not.

If one is born with an innate raw talent for it, then they'd be wise to study the craft of it in order to hone that talent. I don't think you can teach someone to be a good storyteller. But you can teach a good storyteller to become a better one.

What can't be taught is "voice" and each writer's voice is what sets him or her apart from everyone else, even though there are people who think they will become a success if they mimic a successful writer's voice. Metaphorically, or even literally, speaking, you can learn to sing a certain song, but if it's not in your key, it'll show in your performance.

Every writer must learn the obvious, like spelling and grammar -- and when it's okay to violate that grammar (usually connected to "voice" -- see Hemingway, Faulkner, or James Joyce, or more recently, Jonathan Safran Foer).

In my view, a good teacher (and there are as many damaging ones as good ones) can help a writer with structure (plenty of natural talent struggle with structure), with fleshing out characters, with learning how to build a story, build character arcs, and tighten a plot. They can teach the rules of certain genres (the crime or mystery must be solved; the hero and heroine must end up together in a HEA -- however you get there, etc.).

But all the writing classes in the world will not turn a tin ear or even a copycat into a true storyteller. The student will have all the right frames, but not the guts. Of course, there are plenty of people (usually in genre fiction because of a heavy demand for a continual stream of product and because literary fiction tends to be one-offs in terms of story lines) who end up published, and sometimes multipublished because there are plenty of readers out there who don't really care about the difference between a natural, true artist whose soul is imprinted on every page and a person who can paint by the numbers with extreme dexterity.

All that said, I think that everyone should be a perennial student of whatever excites them. Just because you have a natural talent to tell stories doesn't mean you shouldn't do research! A writer can't function in a vacuum. Life experience -- and a healthy curiosity about the world -- past, present, and possible -- enriches any author's vision and scope.

4:40 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

What an interesting topic Doreen. I find myself at National or at other conferences, attending workshops that address specific problems that I might be having with a manuscript. I believe that you never stop learning in life, that you have to be a perpetual student in order to be a better writer, whether its taking a class on craft, or promotion, or just going back and re-reading your favorite books and asking yourself why they are your favorite, what struck you about them, and what has stuck to you long after the book is finished.

My dance teacher, Anya, talked in class last Thursday about the fact that she wasn't an innately talented dancer, but she was intelligent, and that has made the difference in her career. She learned how to be a good dancer, which I find hard to believe because she's phenomenal.

What is that old joke about how do you get to Broadway? Practice, Practice, Practice!

5:26 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

What an interesting post, and something sort of near and dear to me! I've been writing since I was a kid (nonpublished, mind, outside of a couple of reviews) but haven't taken any classes outside of my high school advanced comp class. Knowing now what I didn't know then I probably would have taken an English degree, but I had this weird notion that English majors sat around diagramming sentences all day. I also knew a few high-fallootin' creative writing majors whose heads were too big for any room they were in - also a bad experience that turned me away from academically learning how to write.

In retrospect, that was all pretty unfortunate, and I've been dickering with the idea of going back for a second BA in English. I don't know if I had to grow out of the preconceived notions I had, or get over the fact that not everybody is nice (particularly over-inflated writers with self-esteem problems, natch), but I've come to realize that no information is bad information, and yes, I am not a god and my writing can improve.

My bf has an MFA (art, not writing), and he says that the most important lesson he learned from the programme was the critique - how to take and handle criticism, and apply it in meaningful and useful ways to his art. He also said it helped prepare him for multiple rejections :)

(By the way I've been lurking for a few weeks and really enjoy the blog...hope you don't mind me butting in.)

10:08 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Fascinating, maddening topic, Doreen. I hope to learn some answers as you make your way through the writing program.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Kate, welcome to the blog! I hope you continue to show up and let us know what you're thinking. And please do explore some creative writing classwork. If you've had the bug for a long time, chances are you're going to enjoy it a lot.

Amanda, you raise an interesting point about singing. I compare writing more to composing than singing -- we're not reproducing someone else's plan, we're creating something from nothing but inspiration and sweat, much like a playwright creates a play (I've always liked the "wright" suffix, and wish we were called "novelwrights" instead of novelists).

Elizabeth, your comment about dance reminded me of something I heard Madonna say to her backup singers (very loosely paraphrased): "I know I'm not the best dancer or the best singer, and you all must wonder how I got up in front if you're all better than me."

I suppose what she had was persistence, luck, and no fear of working hard.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Doreen, I used to co-manage a dance studio and I saw Madonna in action holding auditions for her Blonde Ambition tour some years ago, and yes, some really kick-tush dancers were trying out. What she had was grit and drive and an exceptional talent to market herself. In my lifetime, no one else I can think of, with the exception of Muhammad Ali, is a better self-promoter.


My singing metaphor, as I see it, was not really about reproducing someone else's plan, but about finding one's own true voice and style -- one's own natural strength, rather than trying to fit into someone else's, or singing someone else's song in their key. For instance, I can write straightforward romance, but it's not where my natural voice lies, and there are authors out there who do it so well, there's no point in my trying to imitate what they do, but rather to recognize that my writing strengths lie in a slightly different subgenre of literature.

My college roommate, who was an English major used to say "creative writing" was an oxymoron. It does all depend on the teacher. But in terms of your questions, studying the craft of writing to make one a better writer is not the same thing as being a student of life, or of any other academic subject.

Incidentally, I've heard nightmare stories about the Iowa Writers Workshop. Beware instructors with their own agendas, are jealous of their students' talent, or who can't see beyond their own personal literary tastes to be a helpful teacher. Critique is helpful; criticism is not. I had enough damaging acting teachers to last a lifetime, so I would be wary about choosing where to study any other craft, especially something as deeply personal as writing.

5:13 PM  
Blogger louisa said...

As someone who has worked as a singer and then worked as a singing coach, I have to say that the foundation of any trust artist is talent. It doesn't have to be a lot of talent. It doesn't have to be developed talent. But the talent has to be there. The gift, so to speak. All the talent in the world will not make you a star if you don't learn how to wield that talent. The bigger the talent, the more carefully you need to train and nurture the gift.

I have seen so many really talented singers ruin their voices because they were allowed to wield that big talent like a giant broadsword on stage. The problem is if you do that without some lessons, without oiling the sword and without sharpening it, things are going to get ugly, bloody and broken.

I see these 12 year old child singing phenoms screaming their heads off and five years down the road people are genuinely surprised that they have to have node surgery or are suffering from vocal exhaustion.

Any talent has to be trained. The same thing applies to writing. Here's the tricky part. EVERY single talented person learns differently. The marriage of a super talented voice to a super tuned in vocal coach is magic. The same thing applies to writing. A super talented writer married to the kind of instruction or program that brings out the best in them and builds on the foundation is a sure thing.

7:00 PM  
Blogger louisa said...

In case you are wondering, Louisa is actually Doglady! My CP told me I have to let Louisa come to life as that is the name I intend to write under. So Hoydens, meet Louisa Cornell. Louisa, meet the Hoydens, a brilliant group of writers! I will, however, always be Doglady to you all!

7:01 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Well, "doglady" -- you have a beautiful name! And may it bring you much success!

And you make a great point about how a creative person learns and how important it is for an artist and a teacher to be the right match for each other. I remember studying voice from an older woman in the music dept. at Cornell U. who purportedly had an excellent reputation. When I told her that I was aiming for a career on Broadway, rather than the Metropolitan Opera and that musical theatre was my passion, you should have seen the look of utter disdain she gave me.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Thanks for coming out, doglady! I agree with Amanda that you have a lovely name.

I have always been fascinated by the "child prodigy" scene. There are many who do go on to professional careers, and some who burn out and disappear. It's true that singing or other physically demanding pursuits can be overdone in the young. On the other hand, a lot of professions demand training as youth: Virtuoso musicians, dancers, gymnasts, etc.

Back to writing. Of course there has to be some talent there. I suppose the underlying point involves not being able to make silk purses out of sow's ears.

I hope to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of instructors. I've picked a program that focuses on genre fiction, so I hope to be spared the bitterness and egotism found in the more literary schools. We shall see. If I hate it, I'll simply drop out. That's freedom.

2:59 AM  
Blogger louisa said...

Ah, musical elitism, Amanda! I have seen my share of it. I have been so fortunate in my voice teachers from my first one when I was sixteen all the way through to my professor at the Mozarteum. I have, however, seen some horrible vocal coaches. I quit a college teaching position because the chair of the voice department, who was a failed opera singer, took all of his frustrations out on his students. I ended up advising several young men to transfer to another school rather than suffer this man's tutelage.

A good teacher sees it as a calling and as a gift that they must pass on. The best ones see it as a sacred trust. Many of the pianists I know in Europe can trace their piano "lineage" back through their teachers to some not so bad pianists like Chopin, Beethoven, and Liszt.

And a smart Broadway singer will find the best opera coach they can to teach them the kind of techniques that will allow them to sing for three or four hours and gun down an orchestra without harming the voice! A real teacher trains the voice - not the genre.

And thank you all for the compliments on my name. I must give credit to the incomparable Anna Campbell for helping me to come up with it. I sent her a list of my mother and grandmothers' names and she came up with Louisa (my mother's name is Louise) and Cornell (my maternal grandmother's name was Mary Cornelia Jones.) I am very proud to write under the name of such strong, elegant women.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Louisa, my great-great uncle (maybe it was 3x great) was Samuel Margolis, a rather famous opera teacher (Robert Merrill and Jerome Hines were among his pupils, and he also did his damndest to try to teach Gertrude Lawrence to stay on pitch when she starred on B'way in "The King and I"). I auditioned for him when I was about 16 but he wanted to charge me for lessons (a very reasonable sum, compared to what he usually charged) but my parents refused. They were (a) short on cash; and (b) strongly felt he should have given them for free to a relative. Last month, lo these many years later, the subject came up again and I explained to my parents that I could understand if they'd denied me the chance to study with him if they couldn't spare the money, but if they'd been acting out of some sort of high-horse principle that we should have gotten his hard won gifts for free -- that really bothered me. I have distant relatives now who expect me to give them free books because we're related. So I empathize with "uncle's" policy.

After college, I studied voice with a somewhat well-known woman who had starred on Broadway, had been a Julliard opera grad in her youth and Richard Rodgers had composed a song for her in one of his musicals. (lots of hints there). She used to tell some of her female students that they weren't yet up to studying/performing a certain number -- and then SHE would use it in her own cabaret act!

That happened to me when I came back to NY from London with the sheet music to "Memory" from Cats, a show that had not yet made it to the U.S. God forbid one of her students should debut a heart-wrenching ballad somewhere when she could get her hands on it!

8:05 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

My bf has an MFA (art, not writing), and he says that the most important lesson he learned from the programme was the critique - how to take and handle criticism, and apply it in meaningful and useful ways to his art. He also said it helped prepare him for multiple rejections :)

So funny, I just said this same thing over on Dear Author, LOL! Writing programs don't teach you to write. They teach you to think about writing and to think specifically about your own writing (or the good ones do, anyway). I have an MFA and what I learned while earning it is invaluable to me.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Can writing be taught? Yes!! Craft is certainly teachable. The instinct to use craft creatively is probably inherent?

Just read Amanda's post... she says it all.

9:54 AM  

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