Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Can Writing Be Taught?

Veteran novelist Francine Prose doesn't think so, even though she's taught creative writing off and on for two decades. On the other hand, she tells the Washington Post, "'reading can for sure be taught,' she says. And in her view, close reading, combined with constant writing, is the only way a writer really learns." We'd second that opinion. How about you?


At 11:24 AM, Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

Can writing be taught?

We could ask the same of cooking, or playing the violin. Neither is much different from writing in this regard. All three involve ingredients introduced at different intervals in varying degrees to achieve a certain je ne sais quois -- a flavor, an aroma, a sound, a feeling, an experience.

You can teach the formula. The recipe. The sheet of music. "Put the lede on top, nut graf next, and so on ..."

But, once the student masters the formula, then their individual spirits must move them artistically. And that's where answering this question becomes more difficult. There are so many more critical factors that must be considered, particularly empathy and desire.

Can you teach someone to feel what other people are feeling? Can you teach them to want something badly enough to suffer for it?

We can and should teach the mechanics of writing to anyone interested in learning. At the very least, we can greatly improve an individual's ability to communicate, and likely give them a creative outlet for self expression. But, I'm not so sure you can teach someone to write well. That's something we all must work out on our own.

At 11:24 AM, Blogger Geoff Schutt said...

Someone like Gordon Lish would certainly say that writing can be taught. (We could get on a long Gordon Lish tangent, and I could personally, but that's a whole other posting.)

My own thought is that writing can be "guided." That is -- if a person is serious about writing, it's no different than playing a musical instrument, for example. If you want to play the guitar, and play it well, you need to practice every day. And you need to listen to artists you admire. Yes, someone can show you the mechanics, but style and voice are entirely personal, and these are what separate you (the universal you) from anybody else.

I guess I'm echoing what Prose says. After a while, it's up to you to find your "room of your own" and discover what you're made of. And a lot of writing is simply persistence. Not giving up. Believing in yourself (not so much in a cocky way, but that you are indeed capable, and that what you are writing is not discretionary but somehow essential) ....

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Geoff Schutt said...

My comment and tj's seem to have overlapped .... Not a bad thing!

At 11:29 AM, Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

I think maybe I should go bet 1124 in the daily lotto.

At 11:32 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Lovely stuff from two of our more thoughtful and articulate commenters. I hope to engage these issues a little more thoroughly later in the day (by which time perhaps others will have weighed in). I'd agree with most of what you've both said.

The name Gordon Lish, however, raises some warning bells. And I hope we do get to explore him a little more, Geoff. To me, he's mostly famous (or rather infamous) for having apparently taken an incredibly heavy editing hand, bordering on being a collaborating writer, with the late and legendary short story writer Raymond Carver.

Anyway, you can learn more about that here:


At 12:07 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I think this speaks to how all skillsets are learned. Being a musician, a writer, and an artist, as well as an experienced meditator, the "guiding hand" principle was invaluable to me in all these learned skill areas. I think Prose' comment "close reading, combined with constant writing, is the only way a writer really learns," is right on target. I do agree with that. It's what I've been saying to folks who ask how to become better writers for a very long time.

The principle also can showcase the success of literary autodidacts, who have forged out of their "amateur" status something artistically worthwhile. I can name at least two poets I know who are autodidacts, dedicated to poetry in ways no English professor ever has achieved, and incredibly wide-read and knowledgeable about poetry and poetics. No formal training whatsoever, but they could teach far better courses than most "trained" writers.

What matters perhaps is the quality of attention, the focused dedication, the hunger to learn and better oneself. For as one improves as an artist, one is capable of improving as a person, if one gives that the same focused attention and dedication. In my experience, these are connected.

At 12:16 PM, Blogger Geoff Schutt said...

John, I have my own story(ies) re: "Captain Fiction," aka Gordon Lish, who published two of my fictions in The Quarterly (Random House/Vintage Books).

Now, I'm minor leagues compared to Ray Carver, etc., but I'll be writing soon a most-likely longish posting at "This Side of Paradise" about Lish, how he "took me on," so to speak, his editing of my words, correspondence, and so forth ....

He's a fascinating character -- God-like to some, and despised by so many others. No in-betweens with Lish! (Actually, I'm an in-between, I think, and perhaps the only one of my kind.)

At 2:03 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Fascinating stuff, Geoff. I'll be sure to watch for that post, and link to it when it's up. I believe that at least until recently, the good Doctor Lish was advertising his services in places such as Harper's magazine. If anyone comes across a fresh example of that, please let us know.

Yes, Art, I think that those who pursue these things simply out of a love and passion for the material have an attachment that goes way beyond any normal professor's professional interest. And autodidact is a great word for what I tend to call a hungry mind. And feeding that hungry mind (and having one in the first place) is what it's all about. I'd be curious to hear your explanation of the differences between poetry and poetics. I found it interesting that you used both words.

At 11:41 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Poetry is an artform. Poetics is the study of the mechanics and aesthetics of the artform.

Gasteon Bachelard made a big and useful definition in his classic work, "The Poetics of Space." (1958 I think.) He was discussing art, architecture, photography, and writing. He looked not at the origins or technicalities of architecture, but how the lived-in and human experience of architecture affects and shapes it’s development.

Poetics is the lived-in and humanly experienced aesthetic of poetry. Of course one can talk about the poetics of music, space, etc. It's not anti-poetry to discuss the poetics of other artforms, or the musicality of poetry.

Bachelard, who was a poet as well a philosopher and art historian, said: “Poetry is one of the destinies of speech. . . . One would say that the poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language. The words of the world want to make sentences."

Even more relevant is Bachelard's "The Poetics of Reverie," which is a poetic-philosophical reflection on poetry. Here's a quote from the introduction:

"Consciousness is in itself an act, the human act. It is a lively, full act. Even if the action which follows, which ought to have followed or should have followed, remains in suspense, the consciousness-as-act is still completely positive or kinetic. In the present essay we shall study this act only in the realm of language and more precisely yet in poetic language when the imagining consciousness creates and lives the poetic image. Adding to language, creating from language, stabilizing and loving language, are all activities where the consciousness of speaking is increased."

So, for me, poetics is the art and study of the art itself. It's meta-poetry. It's the craft and mechanics, yes, but it's more importantly the spirit and aesthetics of the art. What Bachelard did in some ways, and which I agree with (since I first read Bachelard in my late teens), is to expand the study of poetics from being purely the study of craft, into the study of all things surrounding the art. Purists and neo-formalists will call that a bit vague and nebulous; but I don't care, I have no truck with their blinkered ideologies anyway. I prefer expansiveness to contraction, in all things.

At 11:47 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Wow, bang up stuff, Art. Some readers might have initially wondered why I wouldn't simply go to a dictionary for the answer to my question about the differences between those two words. The answer of course if found above, in Art's impossibly literate, learned and subtle answer, which goes so far beyond what I would have found in even the best dictionary/encyclopedia as to be laughable. Thanks as always for enlightening us, Art.

At 4:58 PM, Blogger Diane Vogel Ferri said...

there's a difference between being able to do something and being able to do it well enough to make an impact. As a teacher I have come to believe that SPELLING cannot be taught - it is a talent - you got it or ya don't.

At 7:47 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, and whether you got it or you don't generally tends to depend on whether you've read a lot or you haven't. It's almost impossible to become a good speller without lots of reading, and fairly hard to be a bad one when you read a lot.

At 11:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you included that line in one of your parenting articles.

At 11:23 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Which line are you referring to, teach? And I do miss those parenting articles now, just like I miss having my boys at home. But life marches on.


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