Friday, October 15, 2010

The Writing Art - Can It be Taught?

As a kid in 4th Grade I knew I wanted to be a writer; never any doubt. On hearing Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Less Taken" at that impressionable age, and having been born in rural Corinth, MS., I also knew I was a "Rebel" as the other kids in a Chicago, IL school called me in large due to my accent and the fact I hadn't known my first name--only my middle name--when the teacher called us up for anything! At any rate, I knew early on that being a writer meant being different and having a love for storytelling. I also early on leaned that many of my teachers--most in fact--had a disdain for this art or feared teaching it and that I was pretty much on my own, that I'd have to be self-taught in this discipline. What I knew was that I needed Grammar badly--good grammar, that is, and that few to no teachers in my experience really knew how to convey the complexities of this 'dead zone' where no one wished to venture if they could instead turn us to doing paper machete projects (all through elementary especially). However, the basics I did pick up in 4th Grade are the same basics I teach in my 101, 102, and creative writng classes at the college level today -- same "stuff" people are resistant to. Ultimately, I teach "sound and sense" in that if it "sounds" rythmic and it makes "sense"--that is clear, use it and move on with your story. That has served me well, Sound and Sense.

The question still nags at us, however--can Creative, Crafty, Clever Writing be taught? I feel that ultimately it can be taught (depending on what one means by taught, of course!) On a recent kindle discussion group, we got into it with these cogent results thanks to the caliber of the people in the group. First the question was raised by a member, so I thank Carla Rene for bringing it up.  Two responses I felt particularly good follow here:

Subject: Re: [Kindlefloor] Can Creative Writing Be Taught?
To: "Kindle Discussion Group"
Date: Thursday, October 14, 2010, 6:37 PM

Carla posed this question:  I know some here are creative writing course instructors as well as English
teachers, but I'm involved in a heated discussion on another writing forum,
and this brings up a great point: CAN you teach someone the basic skills
and inherent ability to write a decent novel? Or short-story?

Anne replied with:  I think there are aspects that can, and aspects that can't, be taught. Writing is kind of a trifecta of inspiration, talent and wordcraft. It doesn't matter how well you can lay out a plot or build a character if you don't have an idea for a plot or character. You can have the most wonderful ideas in the world, but it does no good if you can't tell a story. And you can have a great idea and a great story, but neither does you any good unless you have the mechanical skills to tell it coherently and readably.

Obviously the skills of writing -- spelling, grammar, punctuation, structure and so on -- can be taught. To a certain extent, storytelling can be taught in that you can talk about character building and consistency, plot structure, pacing and so on. Beyond that, however, it comes down to imagination and talent, and another vital ingredient: PRACTICE.

No amount of classroom teaching is going to create a really good writer. You can't teach talent and imagination. However, you CAN *encourage* and *exercise* and *polish* them. I think creative writing classes are excellent for that purpose. Kind of the pilates of the imagination.

Sue entered the fray with this:  Anne, I totally agree with you. As a long time wannabe writer, I found that my talent (if you want to call it that) lay in expository writing (not what I would have wished for). I taught creative writing to 8th graders and high school freshmen for many years and those are the years that I value most highly. During my many years of teaching English to 8th and 9th graders, the California Board of Education tried something quite phenomenal: actually looking at the writing of our students to determine if we were making any progress! "The California Writing Project" pulled the best of the best for training and then invested heavily in training trainers who then worked with teachers at the school site level. I was a trainer and test reader for a few years and I have to say that it was the most exciting time of my teaching career. We actually were able to teach teachers to teach writing (rather than just assigning it). When we were being trained to read and score the student writing tests, papers were to be scored in a 1-5 range (5 being highest), we were told that when we came across a "5" we would know it - and we did. The "4s" were generally almost perfect in every way EXCEPT they didn't have that extra special undefinable "sparkle" that came right out and hit you between the eyes. Those "5" papers were very exciting to read.

I think that, as English teachers, we definitely can teach most kids to be 3s and the 4's, but no way could anyone teach that extra something that we found in those few wonderful pieces of writing that were 5s.. Unfortunately, even though we were showing great progress in teaching writing for several years there, another, easier to grade (and less costly) idea came along and "The California Writing Project" fell by the wayside, as has almost every other good new idea that has come along It was a sad time for those of us who valued good writing and believed that we could help to make it happen.

To which Rob-me, myself, and I added:  I have worked at Jr. High and High School levels also, so I bemoan the fact that so many FINE writing programs at those levels instituted in the 70s and excellent results like the one Sue spoke of -- all across America in fact -- were shut down unceremoniously, or rather unceremoniously shut down due to first cuts always going to the arts--and writing is one of the arts with a somewhat scientific element called sentence structure, types, and grammar wherein you demonstrate skills but you also learn the art of active voice for fiction in particular--dramatic writing.

Sue is absolutely and sadly right on the money when it comes to ANYTHING proven to work for our students is the first thing to be tossed from our schools as a result of cost cutting and administrative jockeying, and teachers' unions concerns also place the most crucial concerns regarding actual classroom dynamics like teacher-student ratio so that real instruction can happen at the bottom of the list of ideals. Money always a key factor and there's no poetry in money nor money in poetry--not as there is in accounting and the sciences.

That said, as one who is self-taught in what is termed creative writing and a writer who happens to be capable of teaching, and a teacher who practices what he teaches daily, I can safely say that yes, a 'talented' young person can learn umpteen thousands of techniques from every published author who has ever put pen to paper. Talent is an iffy word, and imagination is like quicksilver and mercury often coming and going, and to be called talented, even genius, is at best an affectation. What creates most excellent writers is the steady practice of the trade, especially any sort of creatve work, be it the well-crafted essay/expository writing or story. The more one writes, the more one reads, the more one prospers as an author (not always monetarily but via the cache of learning). Talent if a dangerous term in my opinion along with the notion of the silver-tongue born into the head of the child as if prepared via lineage--although they may well have found an "artistic-right-brained genetic connect" as well as a left-brained science-oriented genetic connect" due to lineage. Hard to say. However, I do feel strongly that I have not wased 30+ years in teaching writing; that is, that a great deal of writing is teachable, and we can bring students to the brink of that "Sixth Sense" element that goes beyond the 5 senses and touches the reader in that spiritual zone we all aspire to.

Rob Walker
"Autographed" ebook ARC of Titanic 2012 available by contacting me direct at


Opus said...

Hey Rob,

Thank-you for posting this. In seeing the disparate viewpoints of the other writers involved in this discussion on the other forum, it doesn't surprise me that even after generations of asking, the question still doesn't have a cohesive answer.

Viola Spolin, co-creator of Chicago's famous Second City improv group with Del Close, wanted to have the word "talent" completely banished from the English language. She refused to use the word when speaking about artists. I agree. The word has too many connotations associated with some "divine planting" of a gift, thus leading people without it to believe that they are hopeless. Perhaps "some innate ability" might suffice.

As most know, I was a child prodigy in both music and fine art, discovered at the age of ten. With music, I had perfect pitch memory, could play any of the orchestral instruments without training, and had a 4 1/2 octave range in my voice. With art, I could simply sit down with paints or oil pastels, and duplicate what I saw, exactly.

These were things I was apparently hard-wired to do. However, as I got older and expected the doors just to fling open because I was coming, I soon learned a harsh lesson: things weren't going to come to me simply because I had an innate gift. As I grew older, it became apparent to me that there were also a lot of other people blessed with my same abilities, and that if I didn't get off my butt and put some real, live, work behind it, they were going to surpass me, thus becoming more successful.

So in a sense, I proved, without trying, that a gift won't do much for you, unless you then practice using it, thus becoming even better. (On a related note, my MENSA gifts are absolutely nothing but a number, unless I believe in them enough to subject them to further study and learning.)

One person on this discussion group went so far as to say that practice for a writer is futile--and yet he goes on to quote Stephen King at every turn. So I don't even think I'm convinced he's grasped the basics of the argument that he ended up positing.

Anyway, just wanted to throw that out there--that talent isn't always the best term to describe what a writer is born with; you're right.

Morgan Mandel said...

Depends on the student. Some people just can't spell, no matter how educated they are. My husband went to the same grammar school as I, graduated from the same college as I, yet still has a hard time spelling. On the other hand, he can tell a story and make it sound a lot more interesting than I can.

Morgan Mandel

Deb Larson said...

Rob ~
I too remember having the desire to write as a kid, but no guidance was to be found for me back then. I dropped out of English 4 my Sr. year of H.S. because the teacher decided to do "Romeo & Juliet." I told her we did that as freshman and her response, "not with me you didn't." I wanted to grow while she wanted to teach something she was comfortable with. Needless to say college was not an option for me right out of H.S. Later, I took many, many classes from some great teachers who helped turn my desire for writing into a tangible creation. I also learned a good writer and a good storyteller are not always the same thing!
DL Larson