Can creative writing be taught?
By Michelle Barker
It’s a question that strikes anxiety into the hearts of all writers who make a living teaching writing, and doubt into the wallets of all MFA students who spend a fortune on their creative writing degree.
Some people believe the answer is, fundamentally, no. There is this intangible quality called talent that you either have or you don’t. It’s true of every skill, be it piano, carpentry, or tennis. But just because some people have more talent than others, I don’t think it follows that a person cannot learn to become a better writer.
Writing is a craft. The craft has rules. The rules have exceptions. All of these things can be taught, and it’s essential to learn them if you want to write well.
Can everyone become a great writer? No. Not everyone who learns to play the piano is going to be Mozart. Not everyone who learns to play tennis will be Nadal. So what? Just because you might not end up being Mozart, does this mean you shouldn’t take piano lessons? How do you know you’re not Mozart unless you do take lessons? Even if it turns out you’re not Mozart, you can still derive joy from playing the piano.
Writing is no different.
I believe a writing teacher’s (and an editor’s) job is to take whatever his or her students start with and shape it into the best thing it can be. Each writer is unique. They bring their own material to the table. What they should leave with is the best possible version of that unique material.
I would go so far as to say talent is an overrated component. If I was a gambler, I’d put my money on an average writer who knows how to work hard over someone who is supposedly talented but doesn’t know how to apply the AOC rule (Ass On Chair).
Talent is a trickster. It makes you think you can get it right the first time—and sure, that might work for a little while. But sooner or later every writer encounters a manuscript that threatens to kill them. They get it wrong, and must revise. It’s wrong again; more revision. Still wrong. In fact, so wrong, the writer must start again. And so it goes, until you want to throw your laptop out the window.
If you have not learned how to work hard, this is where you quit. Because it’s hard. It’s hard, and it’s frustrating and demoralizing and it makes you think that in all your years of writing you have actually never learned anything. And if you haven’t learned how to work hard, I would argue that you didn’t learn the most important aspect of writing. Working hard means being open to revision, being humble enough to accept criticism, and being willing to keep working until you get it right.
But here’s the problem with writing. At a basic level, we all know how to do it, which makes it unlike learning how to play the violin or becoming a master carpenter. No one would pick up a violin expecting to be able to play it well the first time they try. No one would expect to build a beautiful cabinet without undertaking a long apprenticeship. Yet, because we can write an essay or a letter, we figure we can also write a short story or even a novel. I have heard people say, “I’d like to write a novel one day,” in the same tone they’d say, “I’d like to go to Paris one day,” as if writing a novel was a simple matter of picking up a pen and investing in a notebook.
Unfortunately, in one sense, writing is exactly like the violin or carpentry. It requires a long apprenticeship before you can expect to sell your work. If it’s a novel we’re talking about, the apprenticeship is even longer. I believe you have to write a number of novels before you figure out how to write a good one. One million words of crap, one teacher told me. That’s how many it takes before the words start coming out good.
Writing isn't only taught in the classroom. I like to think of editing as a form of one-on-one teaching. And as a bonus, I learn just as much from editing as I do from being edited, because quite often the issues I see in other people’s manuscripts also pop up in my own.
I don’t think there will ever come a time where I’ll be able to say I know all there is to know about writing. Every time I attend a conference, or edit a manuscript, or have my own work edited, I learn something new. Every time I read a brilliant novel, I realize I need to study more, practice harder, keep working.
Writing is a lifelong pursuit of learning how to get it right. As soon as you’ve figured it out, your manuscript is done and you get to start again—invariably with new challenges and at least one character who is determined to turn your hair grey.