The Bookworm

Can Writing Be Taught?

The questions of whether writing can truly be taught has been talked about in writing circles in perpetuity. Aspiring writers who are genuinely curious about this matter are … Asking the wrong question.

Let’s get this out of the way: Writing can be taught – I’ve experienced it myself – though you can argue that inherent talent might be a necessary companion tool. But there’s that word: argue. For writers, time is precious … and procrastination takes many creative forms. The form of this question, for instance. Because time spent arguing theoretical points is, frankly, not time productively spent. Better to ask a smarter question: Are you in the right mindset to learn? Are you coachable, teachable, trainable? Willing to do what it takes, give it your all? That much is up to you. And it’s not just the question: It’s the answer.

At swimming class, kids who learn how to swim are the kids who are ready to learn. I’m not saying the rest won’t learn it eventually. We are all more or less equally buoyant, aren’t we? But it takes them much longer to do it – with a lot more resistance and a lot less fun along the way. The most important thing is listening to the swimming coach. It isn’t called ‘sinking class’ – they won’t let anything bad happen to the kids. There are kids who are itching for their turn to go into the water. Like a writer, who’s fallen madly in love with books, poring attentively, insatiably over authors’ words before picking up a pen.

Then there are kids who need to be coaxed into the water, who refuse to put their face in, who are afraid to try anything new, who keep doing things the way they have been, without heeding guidance on their form. They repeat the same mistakes, week after week. They work against themselves; they fight the lesson every step of the way. You can spot their equivalent at writing workshops, a mile off. They’re the ones raising their hands asking about exceptions to every rule.

Nothing kills the energy of a workshop like a student who is quick to explain how this technique will not work for her particular story. Or that she tried it already. Or who only gets more frustrated that she isn’t mastering this more quickly – that’s an interesting tip for next time, but I’ve revised these pages already. Isn’t this good enough? Yet she goes home wondering why she didn’t learn anything new. Blaming the instructor, perhaps, or her classmates, the temperature of the water – even the ungraspable nature of liquid itself.

Writing mentors live for the students whose eyes light up with the glow of the internal light bulb that an exercise or tip has switched on. Who maybe don’t know if or how that will work, but are game to give it a go, see where it leads. Who trust that the coach has become the coach, because she has something worth sharing.

The thing about writing is, it’s all up to you to start, to commit. Nobody is going to coax you off the concrete wall into the water. There are plenty of people swimming already. But if you’re ready to let go? You’re ready to learn to improve your writing. Lessons are everywhere: workshops, articles, books, blog posts, critique groups. Give yourself a pep talk first: Listen to the coach. What’s the harm in trying? After all, it’s not called blank page class.

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