Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Can writing be taught?

Okay, so I'm stealing this topic from one of the forums for the ABNA contest I'm part of. It's interesting being a part of such a diverse group of writers -- at least as "a part of" as one can be while mostly lurking on the forums.

I've found most of my forum lurking exasperating. People whining that the Publishers Weekly reviewer obviously didn't read their whole book (who's fault is that, writer, if you couldn't hold a reviewer's interest???) to people who seem to think that books of a certain type or genre have no place in the contest, or it's "cheating" to ask people you know to write reviews. Makes me crazy.

But the most exasperating thing I've found personally... is the whole attitude of some of the entrants that this contest is a good opportunity to get and give critiques.

Now, for some of the entrants it might be. It might be the first time anyone has ever seen their work. They may view this as a great opportunity to learn what other writers think about their work, or would have done differently. But it's not a critique group, people. It's a contest. To me there's a big difference between a critique and a review. My ms has already been critiqued up the wazoo. Not to mention entered in multiple contests over the past three years. The only critique I'd still listen to on that ms would be one from an editor who's offered me a contract. Then, if it's ever published, if people don't like it, they can feel free to write me a negative review.

Wow, I have SERIOUSLY digressed.

Oooops. ** Maureen blushes, but doesn't delete the digression, then goes back and deletes some of it. **

Back to my planned topic...

One interesting subject that did come up on those loops was whether or not writing can be taught. Scanning through the discussion, I'm pretty sure that the more literary writers fall in the "no it can't" camp, while the popular fiction writers fall in the "yes it can" camp. Although that's a generalization.

Me, as usual, I have a foot in both camps. Love fence sitting. (or dual camp standing)

But seriously. I firmly believe that there is both a craft and an art element to writing fiction. And that the craft part can be taught. Now, not everyone is going to learn it as easily or as well, and not everyone who learns it will be able to apply it to their writing as well, but you can teach people how to make their prose and storytelling stronger. There are techniques that really work and can be taught. I know this. I feel I have learned and proven this through my own experience and have seen others learn and apply techniques, with great success, too.

But I also do think there's a nebulous, almost magic, element that certain writers possess. One that most of us will never have, or will never have as much of, in any case. Whether it's an ability to interpret human behavior in a way most of us don't see, or turn a phrase in an unexpected way, make us cry with the beauty of their words, or make us hold onto the edge of our seats, or take us places we never imagined, they've got something that I'm not sure can be taught.

What do you think... Can writing be taught?


Kimber Chin said...

I think you can be taught to be an adequate writer (just as you can be taught to be an adequate anything) but to be a truly great writer, there needs to be some natural talent.

I see this in business all the time. There are folks who get their MBA's and get constant training and yeah, they're good. But there are people with the same training (or even less) AND the natural ability and they're great. That extra ability makes a big difference.

Me, I'd be happy being an adequate writer with something different to say.

Heidi the Hick said...

I do believe some people are natural storytellers, but there's always improvement and learning to be done.

Talent can be dangerous, you know. It can make a person lazy or worse, arrogant. "I'm natually talented, I don't have to work!"

Writing is a skill that can be taught, but hopefully there's that little bit of storytelling magic to make good solid writing come to life.

Anonymous said...

I think the craft of writing, scene and structure, goal/motivation/conflict, grammar, etc. can be taught but the art of it - the 'voice', the flow of words, the 'feel' of a character - is something a little more ethereal.

It's like having the tools to make a good enough painting - nice canvas, good brushes, good quality oil paints and you've been taught perspective, anatomy, the basics of line and form etc. but someone could make a portrait of your kids come to life while another person would only get it to look like them well enough but not capture their special look - the 'feel' of who they are (e.g.serious, impish, aloof etc.). That's what writers strive for, I think, to get readers to 'feel' their words.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Wow - good answers! I totally agree.

Maureen McGowan said...

Kimber said: I think you can be taught to be an adequate writer (just as you can be taught to be an adequate anything) but to be a truly great writer, there needs to be some natural talent.

You know, Kimber, I think someone famous (other than you, of course)said something similar. Stephen King maybe? I think he said by studying the craft you can turn a bad writer into a good writer, but that great writers were born. (and he humbly claimed not to be one of the "greats")
Can't remember who he did list. Must pull out On Writing again.

Maureen McGowan said...

Heidi... I think you hit on something that's been discussed a few times amongst we drunk writers. And that's the fact that certain authors alternate indisciminately between amazing books and horrible books. Sure, this could just be deadlines or mood or something... But our guess was that the author has no clue what they're doing... but really has the talent to hit magic at times. But can't recreate the magic because they don't understand it and rely to heavily on their talent to pull them through.

I think we all need the craft stuff to help out when the magic isn't there, or to help analyze when something isn't working.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Kimber and Stephen. Not that I can explain the specifics of what seperates a great writer from just a good writer, but I can tell when I'm reading their work.

Kimber Chin said...

Okay, Maureen, you made me smile by simply linking my name with Stephen King. Yep, me and Stephen, hanging out together, trading plot ideas. A girl can dream, can't she?

(That said, I hear that Stephen King often shops - and reads - at the Bay Bloor Indigo so it could very well happen... someday... maybe.)

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