A Short Rant On The “You Can’t Teach Writing” Meme
I see this meme every so often.
“You can’t teach writing.”
That is a hot, heaping hunk of horseshit and you should get shut of that malodorous idea.
Anybody who puts this idea forward is high-as-fuck from huffing their own crap vapors, because here’s what they’re basically saying to you:
“I’m a writer/artist/creative person and I’m this way by dint of my birth — I was just born naturally talented, assholes! — and it can’t be taught so if you’re not born with it as I most graciously was, then you’re pretty much fucked and fuck you trying to learn anything about it and fuck anybody who tries to teach it and you might as well give up now, you talentless, tasteless, cardboard hack. Now kiss the ring, little worm.”
Writing is a thing we learn. Which means it is a thing people teach.
Writing is beholden to mechanical structure — speech snatched out of the air and put to paper. We cram words into sentences, we mark them with punctuation, all in order to communicate on paper (or on rock walls or carved into a dead hobo’s back or however it is you choose to send messages to other human beings). It is a thing we teach to our children. It is a skill that develops as they get older only if it is fostered by the circuit formed between teaching and learning.
Ah, so you might be saying, “Well, what that really means is, story cannot be taught.”
Ha ha ha ha fuck you.
It can too be taught.
I’ve had plenty of teachers who taught me things about stories that I could not myself see or was not sharp enough to realize. And I don’t just mean teachers as in, school teachers or college professors (though those were critical to my penmonkey development, too). I mean, what about editors? Or let’s not forget how other writers instruct us through their own writing advice or by dint of their own writing — after all, every book is itself a lesson in writing books. Hell, my own father taught me things about telling stories — most of them unspoken lessons but some of them about how a joke is constructed or how a tale works when told a certain way.
Story is a thing both of art and craft: it has mechanics same as language does. Stories work a certain way and fail in other ways. Just because the laws of that land are far more amorphous and uncertain than, say, the rules surrounding the cobbling-together of a paragraph doesn’t mean the act of storytelling is without teachable components.
Do we teach ourselves? Certainly to a degree, sure. The best lessons of writing and storytelling lurk in our own mis-steps and victories, but sometimes we need that outside voice — a teacher, I hear they’re called — to provide context and to offer shape to those mis-steps and victories.
Is divinely-granted talent really a thing? Talent may be, though I don’t know if I care to lend its existence to the power of any deity — but talent is worthless without work and is itself an imperfect, incomplete creature. Talent is just a lump of cold, if precious, metal. You still need hard work and effort and desire and trained skill to turn that inert lump into a mighty blade. It doesn’t just fucking happen. Artists are not born into some “magical artist caste.”
Writing and storytelling can be taught. If you want it bad enough, you can learn it.
They cannot be taught in a vacuum, no. They cannot be taught if you do not have the desire to learn and the discipline to execute on those lessons. But one can teach these things to those who truly want to know, to those who truly want to do. Anybody who tells you different is just trying to shut the door in your face in order to feel better about themselves. But, be assured, anybody who sells you that string of turdballs and calls it a necklace is lying to you: just as you will be taught things about writing and storytelling, so were they, at some point.
Go forth and write. And practice. And work. And learn.
And when you’re done, pass some of what you learned down the line.
As a teacher of others.