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.

75 comments

  • I enjoy this because of all the writers who take criticism personally, that they have usually requested. It’s not the imagination that it is being critiqued, it’s the ability to portray what your mind has created. It takes practice like learning a new language. You can always relate your thoughts with more clarity, vision, imagery than you did yesterday. There is something to be learned from great writers.

  • Yeah… you can teach these things. But only to a point. I mean, you can teach people singing and music and composition. At one time or another, I’ve studied all of those things and done them on some level. But no way in hell do you want to hire me to sing at your wedding. You don’t even want to hire me to sing when you’re three sheets to the wind. Yes, you can teach these things… But that doesn’t mean anyone can learn. I do tutor writing students, and through that, have concluded that I can’t teach some people, but it’s because they’re unteachable. Those are the ones that usually fire me as a tutor pretty quick anyway, because I don’t tell them what they want to hear.

    • Sandra Ruttan said what I would’ve said, but more clearly. Not everyone has the basic abilities necessary to be a good writer.

    • Sandra. I teach Comp. 1 & 2 at a Community College. This is not my first career. I am not a traditional academe and have a bit of a different outlook on things than some of my peers. Anywho – the invariable division between success and failure is whether or not a student does the work. This cuts across all lines (those who fell from a ‘real’ college, those who come from the ‘wrong’ part of the city, and those who just happen to wake up and find themselves in the classroom. So, I kinda sorta agree that some people can’t be taught. But it’s because they don’t want to be taught. Yes, some pencils are sharper than others and dear old mom wasn’t 1,000% accurate when she told me, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” BUT – the students I see could do a whole lot more if they wanted to. How about, those with the desire to learn how to write can be taught?

  • Oh god, I hope it can be taught otherwise I wasted 3 years at university doing my BA Hons degree in Writing! And all that time wasted reading books and magazines, and the hours spent writing and writing to improve my craft. I suppose I’d better delete my writing advice blog too. Dammit, I feel such a fool; I was just born this talented afterall!

  • Agreed and well said! It relates to the myth of the self-made-through-his-own-hard-work American. I can’t believe how many times I hear some variation of the story of the person who became successful completely on his or her own, without any help from anyone, and despite difficult circumstances. Ha! What a pile of steaming shit!

    These selfish people give no credit where credit is due. They pay no homage to parents (if warranted), friends, teachers, mentors, or anyone else who offered guidance along the way. Are we to believe that these people lived in a cave somewhere and magically emerged with some amazing set of skills with which to succeed all on their own?

    Thank you for your inspiring rant good sir. I’m glad I’ve found your blogs. And yes, I am a new reader of yours. Just grabbed a few of your politely written how to write books. And, on a final note, I haven’t finished them so please do not look critically on my writing proficiency in a blog comment!

  • I believe that the thing which can’t be taught is the love of writing.

    I’m pretty sure that anyone can write a book (assuming the ability to physically write – otherwise it’s substantially harder). With enough time and effort, I’m pretty sure anyone can write a good book.

    The thing is that for some people it will be a joy – a way to escape the stresses of everyday life, a fun hobby, something to be squeezed into spare minutes whenever possible. For other people, it will be a chore. If you’re going to put the time and effort in to not only write the book but learn how to write well in the first place and polish the book into a shining gem afterwards, then writing has to be something you want to do.

    This is why the world is full of people who say that they’re going to write a book someday and then never get round to doing it.

    • Sure, I agree that love can’t be taught — and that love is a core component for opening ourselves to the experience of the thing and, to a degree, the teaching of that thing. That’s why I cited desire and discipline as pieces of this puzzle: teaching and learning alone are not enough, but they’re still key.

      – c.

  • What I hear when someone says “writing cannot be taught” is “I don’t understand how I write.”

    Now, the reasons may be many why someone doesn’t understand how they do something. For myself, I have difficulty articulating exactly why I make a particular programming design decision because I have been doing it so long that bad design just tastes bad – but I most assuredly learned how to program at some point.

    For those who (in their defense) can write but don’t really have an intellectual understanding of how it works, the chances are that they have been immersed in story since they were pre-verbal and so have fine taste about narrative and sentence structure: they put in the Gladwellian 10,000 hours early and don’t remember the work.

    The rest of us can still put in those hours, though. I am sure I still have a few thousand to go, so I will find someone who does understand the process and the mechanics and the structure and learn from them.

    Because for me, if you say “writing cannot be taught” what you are telling me is “I don’t know how to teach.”

  • This is one of those ideas that trips my psychopath trigger: That talent is a magical gift from the heavens and you either have it or don’t. Which is usually followed up with: You have to have that talent in order to be successful at something.

    I call bullshit. Art — *any* art — is learned. Creativity is a skill. Outside of desire, commitment is the only thing you need — and yeah, you have to learn that too.

  • January 10, 2013 at 10:36 AM // Reply

    Do The Work. If you want to excel, you will, whether it means honing a talent or putting your head down and learning how to do it. That’s for any creative endeavor.

  • Writing is a skill. It can be taught.

    Writing is a skill. Some will develop skills more or faster than others.

    Writing is a skill. It improves and strengthens with practice. The old saying goes “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

    I believe in practice.

  • Coming out of lurk mode to disagree. Sort of. Semantics but bear with me. Or not. I firmly believe that writing can be and should be taught. It is the sticks and stones, the ankle-bone-connected-to-the-leg-bone, the rules of grammar (including those that can be ignored). Writing is the craft we all must learn so that our two words strung together make a sentence–and make sense. I am a true believer that a person who wishes to be a writer could, should, and damn well better learn that craft before appearing in public.

    Now, where we disagree. I don’t believe storytelling can be taught. The structure of a story, yes, but the magical mystical things plucked from a writers imagination that lends truth, justice and the American way (or the French way, or the English way, or the Jamaican way…) to a story is that innate ability to tap into the imagination.

    At the age of six, my nephew could tell a story:I have a stuffed dragon my mother named Drake for me. He is blue and green and used to sit on the end of my bed. Then I took him outside and he got dirty. My mom got made. Drake ended up in the trash. Bye, Drake.

    My daughter could also tell a story about that same stuffed dragon: Arson lives in the mountains, misty-blue mountains that are the same color as his eyes. Except when he is mad, or there is fire around. One day, he got mad at his friends. He couldn’t blow fire like they could and they all made fun of him. He ran away into the world of humans where he met a little girl named CJ. They became best friends. One night, when CJ was sound asleep and dreaming about riding on Arson’s back as he flew towards those misty-blue mountains, a fire broke out. Bright, hungry flames licked the floors and walls and ceilings, reaching for CJ. Sirens screamed. Neighbors stood in the cold and dark, scared but nosy, too. And then Arson arrived. He breathed fire. Not out, like the other dragons, but in. He sucked that fire deep inside him until every last little flicker of fire was out. CJ was safe and Arson was a hero. Oh, and they were best friends forever and ever.

    True story. I copied both stories down at the time the kids told them to me. It was a interesting exercise but the point I’m attempting to make–you can teach a person the structure of storytelling, but it takes a true storyteller to make the story worth listening to.

    • What you seem to be saying is that you can’t teach imagination. Which is true, to a point, though I’d argue you can help cultivate it.

      But unless you’re suggesting that:

      a) Those stories you reference are utterly perfect and without flaw

      and

      b) They didn’t learn about stories from anywhere else — including you.

      Then I’d say telling stories is still a thing that can be taught. I agree that there’s a component that feels very magical, but the reality is, it isn’t magic. It’s just the love of telling the story. The love can’t be taught, but the story can, if you love it enough.

      – c.

      • Oh, they are FAR from perfect, just simply an illustration. Imagination is a fragile thing and must be nurtured. In another personal example (and holy hell why am I pulling out the personal shit today?!?), my dad’s favorite advice was “Set aside some dreaming time.” My mother, on the other hand, would shake her head and say, “Where in the world did you come up with that story?” I swear the woman had no imagination despite being an avid reader. Where she could read a book and be satisfied, I would read the same book and wonder, “What if…?” and wanting to take the story to other places. That’s part of what sets apart a storyteller from someone who tells a story. Yeah, I know. Splitting hairs. I’ll shut up now and return to the land beneath my rock. ;)

  • I think you need to make the distinction between “things that you can learn how to do yourself” and “things that other people can teach you how to do.” You swap between the two as if they’re interchangable and the same – and I don’t believe they are.

    For me the best opinion I’ve heard on the subject was from John McPhee – who has had a non-fiction writing class at Princeton for about forty years and has been a writer for the New Yorker for about fifty. Quoted in the Paris Review (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5997/the-art-of-nonfiction-no-3-john-mcphee), McPhee said:

    “The fundamental thing is that writing teaches writing. And you always get this question from people, and they say some version of the idea that writing can’t be taught. And the thing is, yeah, you can’t throw a firecracker on the ground and up comes a writer. But you can teach writing in the same way that you can coach swimming. When I was a swimming instructor at Keewaydin, all the kids I taught could already swim. Every single one of them was a swimmer. But as they moved through the water they had different levels of efficiency. You can talk to them about breathing and their rhythm and their arms and legs.

    “A teacher of writing can do that—as long as the teacher always bears in mind that writers are all unique. It seems a pointless exercise if you’re trying to teach somebody to write the way you do. You just comment on what they’re doing, and I think there’s a net utility in it.”

    I believe you can learn to write and I believe that you can be coached in how to write better. I don’t think it’s a set of skills that can be taught – though perhaps there are perspectives that can imparted – I think the person and the approach are inseparable.

    I feel like I should have put “fuck” in there somewhere.

    • I agree with most of that, except the fact that writing already is a set of skills that can be taught. We are in the formative stages of teaching our toddler those very skills right now.

      – c.

  • The operative sentence here seems to be this, “If you want it bad enough, you can learn it.”

    It’s great to encourage ppl. It’s great to flip the bird to those who say ppl writing shouldn’t be encouraged. Certainly. I mean, with undeniable certainty writing can be taught and learned. Anyone but the Astatine-like prodigy or savant in the audience are proof of this. There are, however, two and only two types of persons who can absorb and then put into practice what they have been taught about a craft like writing:

    1 – someone obsessively maniacal about mastering the craft – willing to bang their head against the wall of frustration and keep on going. You say I can’t? Fuck you. I’ll show you. And I won’t stop Mother Fucker until I have – type of conviction.

    2 – someone who has some ability – perhaps yet untapped – at that craft.

    If the above counts as elitism, than feel free to rain your vitriol on my elitist ass. But I’ve seen this myself many times. Ppl who desperately want to do something, love doing it, are passionate in their pursuit of doing it, and are just not good at it. Period. Did they learn the rudiments? Sure. Did they put ink to page? Sure. Is it something YOU would read? Fuuuuck no! Your criteria for author interviews admits as much when you put a heavy favortism on non-self-published authors.

    “… when I do these things I receive a boat-load of responses from self-pub authors, many of them demonstrating what could kindly be called “questionable talent and/or story.”

    Did those indie authors write? Not up to your standards. Could they become better? See criteria 1 & 2 above.

    Of course those who say writing is a congenital virtue bequeathed to them and only them are sad, small ppl who are probably over-compensating for their own poor sense of self-worth. (for men, perhaps this is relevant http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T.M.I)

    But it seems you are implying (and if I got that wrong, well, *shrug* my bad – what’s the point of having a blog entry if ppl aren’t permitted to mis-read it?) that writing can be taught to any and everyone and, indeed, could be mastered by one and all. This is the opposite-side of that same head-up-your-ass coin as nobody but the blessed can do it.

  • There’s a pernicious variant of the meme: opposition to the very process of being taught due to the speaker’s psychological or ideological issues with authority. It’s the patriarchy (what used to be called The Establishment) that thinks grammar is important, for example, and it’s being promulgated to keep us creative lackeys enslaved.

  • This sounds very close to something I said not too long ago in a discussion about the creativity levels of left- handed people versus right-handed people and if creative talent is inherited. So basically, a lot of bunk and drivel. A person can be born with all the creative talent in the world and use their left hand to produce it but unless that person has the drive and the passion to learn, cultivate and hone the craft of storytelling, it doesn’t mean crap.

  • Sort of want to marry this post.

    It’s the same with any creative endeavor. Folks use the word “talent” to tell an artist or a musician that they can do what they do because of some magical gift bestowed on them at birth. This negates any hard work or practice they’ve put into their craft.

    I work every day at writing and illustrating, and I’m learning because I read, study, experiment, and practice. I get pretty miffed at the idea that there are invisible levels of talent that “can’t be crossed.” I’ve seen my own improvement, so I know it’s not true.

    I agree you can’t always go on talent alone, and you can’t always teach what someone can’t –– or doesn’t want to –– learn.

    But don’t tell someone who wants to learn that it can’t be taught.
    And don’t tell someone who has worked hard to learn that they’re “lucky.”

    It’s always somewhere in between.

  • Thank you for this post. Not only is it applicable to writers but all the creative-types and I wish high-falootin’ arse-cardinals would get it through their heads. Even Jean-Baptiste Grenouiile (Das Perfume by Patrick Suskind) had to be taught.

  • Of course, you can learn! You HAVE to.

    By contrast, the young today seem to think whatever pops out of their collective heads is worthy. They’re too lazy/self-indulgent/impatient to put the time and energy into perfecting the art. And yes, writing IS art, and you can’t perfect the art without practice and hard work.

  • For me, the mechanics of writing and story construction can be taught, but that which creates an auteur can not. I just can not believe that genius such as that possessed by Flannery O’Connor, Leo Tolstoy, and other brilliant writers, is simply a rote skill. There is something sacred-seeming about those who rise above the “hoi polloi” and write transcendent works.

  • I compare learning to write to learning to dance. You may not have naturally light feet or talent, but once you start dancing, it’s impossible to become a worse dancer. In time, you’ll get better as long as you never stop dancing.

  • Each year I invariably have a couple of students in my Creative Writing class who ask how it’s possible to teach something like creativity. They see creativity as the spark that Prometheus stole from the gods, this mystical, unknowable thing that some people are just inexplicably born with, as if being an artist like being a Jedi or something. I try to correct them gently, but firmly.

    First off, creativity and talent are not the same thing.

    My definition of talent is pretty simple, one I borrowed from Malcolm Gladwell: Talent is your natural learning curve. A talented athlete is not actually born knowing how to play a sport – but compared to others it doesn’t take a lot of practice for him to pick up the skills and nuances. A talented musician might be able to pick up a piece in 2 tries instead of the 10 it takes everyone else in the band. Talented people seem like Jedi to less talented people because it looks like everything comes so easily to them, but really it’s just a measure of natural ability to pick up new tricks in that field. And that’s pretty much it, as far as talent goes on its own. Without practice, without exposure to new things and bigger challenges, talent means jack in the end. Most of us probably have one or two undeveloped talents that we either never stumbled over or never practiced, like Troy’s super plumbing powers throughout most of Community. It’s not a magical calling that will one day bring us to our destiny, it’s just an ability to learn certain skills faster and more intuitively than most people do. Talent can’t be taught, true, but it’s also not a crucial factor in whether or not you’ll be a good writer – just how quickly the tricks of the trade come to you if you keep at it.

    Creativity is another sticky term to define. For a lot of people who don’t work in creative fields, being “creative” just means thinking up crazy bullshit, like artists are just magic hobos yelling in the street: “… and then THEY ALL MUTATE INTO NINJAS and their teacher IS A GIANT RAT who gives them the names of RENAISSANCE ARTISTS! BLEH BLEH SKIDDOO!” (Thank you again, Donald Glover.) They see inspiration as the proverbial bolt from the blue, unable to be predicted or called on command. By contrast, what I teach my students is that when it comes to writing, creativity is the ability to bring something from your imagination to the page – no more, no less. I don’t care if you contain endless worlds of whimsy and wonder – so long as they’re still contained, you’re not really creative, because you haven’t CREATED anything. One of the saddest things that I see every year are the students who “like, have a TON of novels in my head” and maybe even notebook after notebook of painstaking world building notes, but they never actually manage to get an actual story down on the page. Being creative means creating, not just daydreaming and wish-mashing concepts together.

    The real core of creative writing, as I teach my students anyway, is three things: learning the tools of the trade, soaking up as much of your field as you can, and producing your own work. You need to learn the technical terms so you can break down the stories you encounter and understand why they did (or did not) work – what is so special about Faulkner’s use of the rare and elusive 1st person plural in “A Rose for Emily”? What did it offer him that made it worth adopting? (Hint: It’s great for gossip.) You need to soak up your field so you can see what others have done, learn what works and what doesn’t, see where others are taking it right now and so on. You wanna write horror? Don’t give me any bullshit about “not wanting to be tainted by other people’s ideas” – just go out and read a lot of goddamn horror. Don’t read only horror, though – I also teach them not to be picky about where they find good writing. I’d rather have them play Mass Effect 2 or watch The Wire than read a stack of People magazines.

    Producing your own work is, of course, the bitch. But here’s where another bias creeps into the process. When people say “you can’t teach writing” what they often really mean is “you can’t teach success.” Which is true enough, I suppose, because that’s not a function of the basic skill set being taught. You can sit attentively in my class, do all my assignments faithfully, and walk out with a basic understanding of how to get a story from your head onto the paper – but if you never practice it, if you never put yourself out there and brave the rejection mill, you won’t be a success. Even if you do, there are loads of solid writers who have trouble landing agents and getting published. I actually do my best to prepare my students for the business side of the craft too, but that’s still no guarantee it will work and they will become bestselling authors.

    Besides, saying “you can’t teach writing” because most of the students won’t go on to fortune and gory in the field is laughable on its face. Do you consider the swimming teacher a failure because 99.9% of the kids won’t grow up to be Michael Phelps? No. Do you say “you can’t teach math” if teachers don’t produce another John Nash? No. (And thank God, really.)

    In the end, it’s not a magic system that’s guaranteed to make everyone a superstar writing badass – but if you sit down in my course and do the work, by the end of it you’ll know how to put a story together and get it on the page. (You’ll also know how to take criticism as you work through many drafts and revisions.) You’ll also hopefully have a better understanding of what makes some writers great, others frustrating, and some simply tragic. You’ll have an entry level understanding of publishers, rights, payment and agents. What you do from there is up to you.

    But don’t tell me you can’t teach writing, or I will strike you down like the Jedi that I am.

  • I started out as an artist, and frankly, I think it’s the same sort of people that think you can’t learn to draw, that the ability to take a pencil and draw a chicken is some kind of innate black magic.

    Feh. I LEARNED to draw. It took years of practice and sucking really really bad. I was never talented, I was just stubborn as a mule.

    Frankly “you’re talented” is misleading, when the truth would really be “you’ve got the right combination of insanity and stubbornness to beat your head against this day in and day out until you don’t suck as badly as you did when you started.”

    • Innate talent DOES exist. There’s just no debate about that. Otherwise, what do we do with prodigies, who are painting/drawing/writing/making music at incredible levels at very young ages? The individual strokes of a pen or brush can be taught. Genius that creates a masterpiece can not.

      • I gotta say, though, genius is often more subjective than you’d think, a process of surviving history as much as artistic contribution. It’s easy to label genius in hindsight, but the truth is, most artists simply struggle to create and let history decide the rest.

        Prodigies are an interesting case, but in reality, while we remember a handful of really enduring ones, the majority of them don’t go on to create lasting masterpieces. Heck, many of them don’t even stay in their field. My best friend growing up was a violin prodigy who was playing with symphonies by the age of six… and gave it up at the age of 12. Which, according to his violin instructor, was not that uncommon. He’d seen eight or nine prodigies in his lifetime, and of those, only three became musicians, and while they were good musicians, none of them created masterpieces.

      • …honestly, I’ve yet to see a child prodigy that was creating masterpieces. Many child prodigies do some impressive things in terms of learning an instrument or copying images, but whenever I see prodigy art, what I usually think is “Wow, that’s great for a six-year old” not “Wow, that’s great (full stop.)”

        Possibly there are kids producing works of staggering genius and I’m just missing them, of course, but even Mozart’s baby compositions were very short and don’t get a lot of air time.

        • I don’t think we’re having a debate about whether some are born with innate talent for a given art form. We’re debating whether or not writing, as an art form, can be taught. The fact that you’ve never seen a true child prodigy doesn’t negate the fact that they DO exist. Different brains are structured in different ways, lending certain people innate abilities not possessed by the “average” person. Think Bobby Fischer, for example. Sure he practiced a lot, but his mind was structured in such a way that he thought differently than other people, in regards to the game of chess.

          (I honestly never thought someone would actually challenge the assertion that child prodigies do, in fact, exist. That seems fairly self-evident, as the list of such prodigies in various fields is fairly extensive.)

          • No, no, you misunderstand me–I’m certainly not challenging that child prodigies EXIST, I just haven’t personally ever seen one produce anything I’d call a “masterpiece.” The genuinely great works that people produce usually come after a heckuva lot of practice, and if they start young, good for them.

            I mean, it was very impressive that Mozart produced those compositions at five, but they’re mostly very short and derivative and more of a curiosity than a masterwork.

            My issue with your statement was not at all the existence of child prodigies bit and entirely with “Innate talent DOES exist. There’s just no debate about that” if that helps to clarify.

          • The thing is, Ursula, the existence of child prodigies PROVES the existence of innate talent. Otherwise, where do children who have otherwise never been taught innately know how to do certain things so well? Does their innate talent need development? Certainly. But the ability existed in them, to a greater degree than it exists in most people. How is this even part of the debate?

      • I don’t think prodigies possess innate talent to do a particular thing. I think the brains of prodigies make connections faster, grasp concepts faster. They LEARN faster.

        • Actually, they seem to possess an innate knowledge of how to do certain things, and then they are able to use that knowledge to do amazing things at incredibly young ages. Their brains DO “make connections faster”, sure, but if that’s ALL that made a prodigy a prodigy, then they should all be able to do everything that they attempt at a prodigy-like level.

          (Honestly, I’m really surprised that people are actually trying to explain away prodigies. Can’t we all just agree that this is a more complex issue than just black-and-white?)

  • I couldn’t agree more. It drives me up the wall when people talk about writing as if it’s something that the writer has no control over. It belittles the hard work of all writers to say that some “got it” and others don’t. Sure, we all have different degrees of innate ability. But even if a person is a natural at something, they still need to hone their natural talent, and that’s hard work. A person with less natural ability may need to work harder and they might not ever be as good a writer as someone for whom it was easy. But if you look at where they started and where they ended up, there is no other conclusion than that writing can most definitely be taught.

  • Honestly, I don’t know if I agree with you or not. Both, I guess? I suppose the best I can do is respond with “you can also teach someone to play jazz” and note that if that’s as far as it goes, the jazz will suck hard.

    The problem is that most of the people who TRY to teach writing usually wind up imparting the idea that there are Immutable Laws of Writing which is such a pile of horseshit that I think we might be better off with the idea that you can’t teach writing, even if that idea is wrong. The best teachers I’ve had are the ones who show me things that other writers did, show how specific decisions helped create specific effects, and left it to me to try to figure out how to adapt it.

    But that’s not what your average “teacher” does. How many more times in my life am I going to have to hear “show, don’t tell?” from people who ignore that bulk of Douglas Adams’ funniest gags from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy requires “telling?” How many writers have been TAUGHT that they should NEVER tell, robbing them of a legitimate and useful tool? How many more times will writers be told to NEVER use passive voice under any circumstances? How many writers are conscientiously learning this bullshit because they genuinely want to get better and they’re being told there are specific ways to do things, to the exclusion of all else, unless you happen to be one of maybe ten authors who “can get away with it?”

    Bullshit. Anyone can get away with it. All you have to do is convince the reader to turn the page, and you got away with it. You can’t get away with it with everyone, but there’s not a writer on earth who can. There are people who detest Neil Gaiman’s work and think he’s boring. I don’t get it, but they exist.

    You can learn to write, certainly. And you can be taught writing in a rudimentary or fundamental sense, just like you can be taught elocution, or taught painting, or anything else. But too often that argument is presented as if it actually stops there, and it doesn’t. The teaching part is the part of learning to ride a bike where you’ve still got the training wheels. At some point the training wheels come off and you wobble around and fall over and holy fuck IS THAT A CURB SONOFA ow.

    I suppose on a rational level I (reluctantly) agree with you. Emotionally I’m deeply suspicious of being “taught writing” because so much of what I hear from over-helpful writers trying to help sets off about seven layers of bullshit detectors and I’m tired of the headaches and ringing ears. Then again I’m also an amazingly arrogant prick and it’s equally possible I’m just as full of shit as the people who are pissing me off.

  • Well, writing should (and needs) to be taught if you want to become a novelist. Creativity just can’t be.

    I view it like this: Structure (such as the components of a novel, Rising Action, Falling Action, Resolution, etc.), is like your mug. It gives your ideas shape that anyone can follow. Creativity is the hot cocoa streaming from your mind. Sure it’s delicous, but without your mug, you’re going to have a hard time enjoying it. Literay Devices (similes, personification, symbolism, etc.), are like the yummy marshmallows sprinkled in your cocoa that melt in like two minutes, giving your hot cocoa a creamy taste. They simply make everything more enjoyable.

    Pure creativity might be the substance, but it needs shape, purpose. You can’t drink it too fast or you’ll get burned. You need boundaries, pacing, a clean mug. Knowledge of these things are essential or you’ll be sadly slurping your soiled cocoa all over the table.

  • “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.” — Ernest Hemingway

    That’s the trick.

  • Okay. For crying out loud. Yes, a “natural talent” probably does mean you will learn more quickly than others and have a greater chance to excel. Good for you. Those who learn more slowly can still learn if they are taught the mechanics: how and why the things that work do work. Add to that some passion and maybe you get something worthwhile.

    I was an artist, and as has been pointed out above, we heard the same lazy, condemning, selfish bullshit about lack of talent. There are basic ways of seeing, understanding, thinking, problem-solving, and technical skills that can and should be taught. Only a clueless windbag will gloss over them and expect a student to get a handle right out of the gate. Maybe two students per year never really quite caught on, but everyone – and by that I mean everyone – improved. Sometimes in learning there is a cumulative effect, where I plod along struggling like an idiot, and then one day it clicks, and I’m doing things I had never before been able to do. The learning curve is different for everyone in different settings and for different reasons.

    Besides which, what about the people who suck who are nevertheless successful? Ability does not equal success. Check out the published and marketable works in any grocery store check-out line. Another factor is having something to say. I was in a writing class with kids who came up with crazy creative ideas, one might say gimmicky tricky little ideas about how to frame a story. They were clever as hell, but their writing was not even remotely interesting because it lacked soul. It might be fair so say you can’t teach someone what to say, but you can, for sure, at least teach how to approach figuring out how to say it. If you don’t want to do that, don’t be a writing teacher.

    I started keeping diaries when I was 11 years old. No one forced me, no one told me to do that. I kept them until I was 21, then threw all of them away. Wish I hadn’t. But I kept writing, compulsively, year after year, any time my emotions felt too strong to contain, and I would dump it all out onto the page like a crazy person. 90% of it was crap, but some of it strikes me as recyclable, as material that can be harvested for other purposes, because it seems like what’s emotionally honest for me is probably true for someone else. Right? Writing like that doesn’t make me a writer, and I would never call myself a writer. It just makes me someone with a mind full of words that don’t stop and can take on a life of their own whether I want them to or not. I think maybe that could mean I could learn the craft of fiction. No matter how hard or long I work at it, I don’t have the innate talent to write like Isaac Bashevis Singer, but I feel it should be within my reach to produce a story of greater depth than the typical Matlock episode. I believe that strongly enough that I am going to be really pissed if it turns out that, despite my best efforts, I can’t. In the greater scheme of things, trying beats the hell out of watching Wheel of Fortune reruns, and what else am I going to be doing – fucking needlepoint? Costs less to write than to make art – paint is expensive. Space and light and ventilation are expensive. Paper and ink and pens, not so much. It’s just stupid for anyone to say I don’t have the right to try, or to think about it, or to learn or experiment, and if they can’t contain their patronizing little smirks, whatever the fuck that’s about, I’m pretty sure it’s not about me. If I’m not successful, I will at least have spent my time doing something I cared about. There is no door prize at death. You don’t win anything on the way out.

    • “There is no door prize at death. You don’t win anything on the way out.”

      Wait… WHAT!?! This is an outrage! Who do I go to, to complain about this, and what do I do with this ticket?

  • You’ve really nailed this, man. I don’t think anybody could learn writing on their own without actually doing it, and even with a teacher you need to be getting the words out to take in what they say. It’s not some arcane process though.

    Creativity isn’t something you have or don’t, and it can sure as hell be taught. Some of us get those moments of inspiration when we see a drop of dew slides down the skin of a clenching flower, or when we’re down to the last cold beer and busting for a piss. You fall asleep at night, and your brain shits out a bunch of nonsense we call dreams.

    I’ll sometimes ask my five year old to tell me a story. He’ll usually ask me what it should be about, and I’ll either let him choose, or give him two or three elements, which is one of the exact same ways I come up with stuff of my own. Writing, story, creativity… as much as I’d like to say I was born with it, I know it’s because I’ve been doing it for the majority of my life. It can all be taught.

  • I completely agree. Talent may be a natural part of you, but just like people who are good at sports have to learn and practice to become professional atheletes, so to do we writers have to learn and practice to write well. And guess what? All learning is done though teachers of some sort. I learned more for my first editor than I could have from a million formal classes, and am so grateful to my college profs that I’m dedicating my first book to them. So yes, writing can be taught and it should be an ongoing lesson – at least if you want to keep improving.

  • As a long time mentor to four generations of writers: you can teach someone to be a good writer but the creative desire + passion turns a good writer into a great writer.
    Good post Chuck.

  • As a mentor to 4 generations of writers: you can teach them how to write & become good writers. BUT their creative desire + passion makes them become great writers.

  • I think I agree, despite being new to writing.

    However, I find it depressing that many of today’s most well-known writers endorse the theory that there is an ingrained hierarchy of innate talent.

    Example? Stephen King’s “On Writing” (while nonetheless a brilliant book) takes this approach.

    To paraphrase, “A bad writer cannot hope to become a competent one, and a good writer cannot hope to become great. But, with practice, a competent writer can become a good writer through mastering the writer’s ‘toolbox’…”

    While this declaration is not as stark as “you can’t teach writing” PERIOD FULL STOP, that feeling of smugness and superiority still manages to wriggle its way between the lines.

    Heck, this is why I don’t read books on the craft of writing anymore; the advice one book gives can conflict drastically with the advice another book gives…and both books can be written by writers who have sold millions of books and are considered extremely successful, despite conflicting drastically on key principles.

    To chip in my two cents worth, the need for experience (both at writing and, well, at life) is the only constant I’ve seen between any of the writing books I’ve read.

  • I’m going to be more abrasive than I usually am here. Thought I should warn you…

    I completely agree that writing is a matter of skill honed through practice, and that talent is useless without a desire to improve, but I feel that no-one here has really addressed what talent is, or what it means to have or lack it.

    To my perspective, what people call talent is not some kind of god-given magic, but a very specific kind of applied intelligence—the kind that’s really useful for one thing, kind of useful for a few others, and otherwise just kind of there. But having a lot of that talent isn’t necessary; *not* having a severe deficit of it is.

    A person with a very weak learning curve isn’t going to pick up what they need to at the rate that they need to; nor is a person with a limited understanding of other people’s thought processes going to have much luck trying to write another person believably. In other words, an idiot isn’t going to get very far with even the best advice.

    But there’s the rub: An awful writer doesn’t need to be clueless at all, only arrogant enough to think that they don’t need to improve themselves. While a fool may never become a great writer, they will at least try to better themselves; to the contrary, an arrogant writer sees no need to better themselves, and so can only grow worse with time and mental masturbation.

    Of course, the worst sort of writer is the egotistical half-wit—that is, the kind of person that is *somewhat* intelligent, but assumes themselves to be much cleverer and more competent than they actually are. Such beasts are fortunately reasonably rare, but I have met a few of them. Needless to say, I hope to meet no more of them.

    God, I sound misanthropic here, don’t I? I try to avoid this kind of bitter pissing and moaning, but this subject brings out the nastiness in me.

  • It definitely needs some degree of teaching. Naturally talented or not, a skill needs to be developed and practiced for it to be worth calling useful.

  • I love this… This form of communication, I get. And appreciate.

    “But, be assured, anybody who sells you that string of turdballs and calls it a necklace is lying to you…” Hilarious..

    And spot on.. “Per Ardua Ad Astra” – through hardwork and adversity to the stars; all the talent in the world is useless unless you have the passion to learn and the guts to try.

  • I like what you have to say here. I do. But i do have one little problem. And that is that I have never seen this meme in my life. You must give us links so that we may ridicule da memes!

    • While I disagree with Chuck’s blanket assessment of the “meme” as utterly false, I have seen lazy language arts teachers claim, “You can’t really teach writing” when it came time for the students we taught to take their writing assessments. I think the truth is in between: those with no innate talent CAN become what might be called “adequate” writers; those with some innate ability can become good; and those born with a special gift can learn to write brilliantly.

    • Google search on “you can’t teach writing” returns about 45 million results. That should be enough to keep you busy with ridicule for a while. Oh, and THIS VERY PIECE returns as #5 out of 45,000,000. Congratulations, Chuck!

  • Sadly, a lot of people think this, and not only about writing. As a college biology instructor, for instance, I get students all the time who say they “just can’t learn science.” Never mind that learning biology entails the same sorts of skills these students apply to other areas of their lives (the ability to remember things and to organize information hierarchically and to make connections between ideas and communicate about them). I think in America, we have a sort of “cult of the natural,” that’s evolved. We point to those rare prodigies that are out there and assume that if we’re not “naturals” like them, we can’t ever achieve competence, let alone excellence.

    I suspect there are two reasons for this. 1. It allows one to get “off the hook” for laziness. If you’re bad at something, it’s because it’s just how you are, not because you haven’t put the time in to get better. 2. It’s an excuse for devaluing education (which our society is increasingly unwilling to pay for). If someone’s either good at something or not, why bother spending time and money teaching people to do things they either know how to do already or will never be able to do with any skill?

    Now having said that, I do accept that levels of talent and interest vary between individuals. And it’s completely normal and natural for people to gravitate towards activities that they are better at because the reward to effort ratio is higher. It’s also true that there are only so many hours in the day, and there isn’t time to master every skill set out there. But no matter how good you are at something, sooner or later, you’ll hit a wall of sorts. Persistence and a willingness to step outside one’s comfort zone are assets for everyone.

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