Being a writer, I write, but I also teach creative writing. I teach a workshop once a month in a lovely bright room in a cafe in Princeton, New Jersey; and I teach once a week in a dim, goatish-smelling, basement cubbyhole in a prison in Bordentown, New Jersey. Except for the setting, and perhaps the level of self-confidence in the students, there’s very little difference between the two classes. Both are filled with people who want to make sense of their lives through the written word, who hope they have something worthwhile both to say and to discover, and who hope to have readers.
In both classes,, as in every class I’ve ever taught whether in a university, a writing conference, or via email, inevitably I am asked — “Do you believe you can really teach someone to be a writer?”
This is a more complicated question than it sounds, because it contains, among other things, an assumption that we agree on what it means to be a writer in the first place. And the truth is, I suspect whomever is asking me this question and I have quite different opinions on what makes a writer.
Some people believe someone who writes is a writer, but that definition could very well include My Best Beloved, who writes a lot of reports and memos, but would never call himself a writer. Some people believe one only has the right to call oneself a writer if one is published. I disagree. Publishing is a different beast altogether and although one may not be an author until one is published, all sorts of authors aren’t writers (a woman named Snooki comes to mind). Some people who talk a great deal about writing, and who scribble occasional paragraphs and who read a lot of books about writing sometimes call themselves writers, but again, I disagree. In my opinion a writer writes more than they talk about writing, and although they may very well read books on the subject of craft, they should spend more time putting words on the page than reading about how to do that. And some people who never read books sometimes calls themselves writers. That just makes me cry. If I have to explain why…well, I probably don’t have to explain it to anyone reading this essay.
But, let’s assume the person who asked me if it’s possible to teach writing and I agree on a basic concept of the writer — a person who writes, who reads, who spends their life making meaning through words, who is saner when they are writing than when they are not, who is urged to the page as a salmon to the breeding ground, etc… — the question remains.
Can writing be taught? Again. It’s complicated. Yes, I can teach you to be a better writer than you are now. I can teach you about point of view, how to reveal character, how to use such tools as internal monologue, stream of consciousness and how to write decent dialogue. I can teach you to pare away adverbs and adjectives and help you write with clarity and precision. I can explain narrative arcs and transformation and what a peripheral narrator is and how to enhance subtext. I can do that and more, and if you are disciplined and passionate I can guide you to a new level of craft.
But here’s what I can’t do:
I can’t make you love words. I can’t make you delight in the sound of words like dangleation, calignosity, olid, shirring, niddering, or fusby. (And, judging from the fact my computer program indicates all these words are misspelled — a sure sign they are no longer in popular usage — I suppose there aren’t many people left who really love words like that.) I can’t make you want to roll the word languid around on your tongue like a cherry pit, until all its sweet juice is gone.
I cannot make you thrill at a beautifully written sentence or passage in another writer’s work to the degree you cannot rest until you try to create something of similar beauty, although it may take a lifetime to do so.
I can’t make you want to understand your fellow human beings, to empathize with them, to mourn and rejoice with them, to rail against the injustices they suffer and to gasp at their struggles, to such an extent you feel you must bear witness to their lives, and to speak out for those who have no voice.
I cannot make you see the page as a place of solace, liberation, comfort and discovery. I cannot make it your natural habitat if it just isn’t.
I cannot hold your hand through the long days and weeks and months and years it takes to develop as a writer, or the similar length of time after that it takes to write a single decent book, or any of the dark nights of soul that await the writer. It is a solitary endeavor in the end.
I cannot persuade you a life spent writing and reading is worthwhile, especially when it may lead to very little in terms of financial reward or that silly thing Andy Warhol made famous — fame itself.
So, apart from the wee bits of technical advice, a soupcon of encouragement, a supportive place to try, try, try and to fail, fail again and fail better… I can only tell you this — if you can’t NOT write, for all its pains and disappointments (and what path does not hold those?) there is no better way for those who are thus inclined to live our lives than as a writer.