Friday, January 20, 2012

Can you be taught how to write?

by Meredith Cole

It's may be strange to think about the question of whether or not great writing can be taught--especially for someone who is about to teach another class on Novel Writing at the University of Virginia. But here goes. I would say yes--and no.

To just say that yes, you can go get an MFA, learn everything you need to and then go on to win a Nobel Prize seems wrong. I believe there is something special in a great writer that is present from birth. Writers have a drive to tell stories, a unique point of view, and the ability to live without the company of others for long stretches of time. None of these qualities can be taught.

But I would be doing myself and other writing teachers a disservice if I claimed we don't matter a whit. It's tremendously exciting to work with a student and see their writing grow and change. To be part of the moment when writing fiction "clicks" for them, and they finally see how they can write the kind of wonderful stories that they enjoy reading--that's incredibly satisfying for me.

So who would I like to learn from? All my favorites, of course. I have been lucky enough to hear Stephen King, SJ Rozan, Laurie King, Sue Grafton, Harlan Coban and Lee Child all talk about their writing life and their process. And I've learned something from every single one of them. But I've learned from so many more by reading their books. Every writer should read widely as part of their personal MFA program.

I hesitate to name one master I'd like to study with one-to-one because not every great writer is also a great teacher. I've been lucky enough to have had a few great writing teachers in my life for everything from poetry to screenwriting, and very few of them shared their writing with me. I took their classes for their teaching skills, not their writing skills.

So what does a great writing teacher do that makes them so great? They push their students farther out of their comfort zone. They point out what their students are doing right and help them to become braver about taking risks and trying new things. They help the student see the bigger picture of the work and how to see it as a cohesive whole. And they gently correct grammatical errors, tense problems and shifting points of view in order to help their students become better editors of their own work.

So many thanks to all those teachers over the years who read my work and helped teach me how to be a better writer--and a better teacher. Which reminds me, I've got to polish up that syllabus. Class starts in just two weeks!

11 comments:

Abhishek Boinapalli said...

Well.. Writers need the drive to tell stories.

The book needn't be spotless as long as readers keep loving it.. So yeah, everyone needs help and can be taught I guess....

We are organizing a prompt based writing contest with loads of gifts.
Kindly drop in to enter the same at Another Author

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Great post, Meredith! I bet you are exactly the kind of writing teacher that you describe!

I agree that the basics need to be there. Not everyone can, or even wants to, sit alone in a room listening to voices in their head. Some people are more sane. :)

Happy Friday!

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for stopping by Abhishek. Writers need help from editors and readers to make their books better, but without the internal drive the books really don't get written...

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks Rebecca! I try to be that kind of teacher--and I hope I (sometimes) succeed. Teaching has helped make my own writing better, though. There's nothing like identifying mistakes in a student's writing to help you identify the same in your own!

Greg Lilly said...

I always tell my classes that writing is both art & craft.

The craft is the mechanics of writing.

The art is that drive to tell a story, to find the right word, use the metaphor that creates a higher understanding.

One can exist without the other, but using both art & craft is magic (another art & craft profession).

Mollie Cox Bryan said...

Wonderful post Meredith and I agree with you completely. You can learn the mechanics, but not everybody has the feel for language that some writers are born with—and certainly not everybody has the drive. And thank the Universe for THAT.

Meredith Cole said...

That's a great point, Greg. Teachers can teach craft--but it's hard to teach drive. I've had more than one student complain "this is hard" after they struggle to put the beginning of their book down on paper. Yup, it is.

Meredith Cole said...

I guess it is good that not everyone does, Mollie, and instead has other gifts to share with us!

Reece said...

Those UVA students are lucky to have a teacher like you, Meredith. For the rest of us, we have to settle for your excellent Criminal Minds posts like this one.

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks Reece! And I hope everyone has a delightful weekend!

Grass Oil said...

I enjoyed this piece. Thank you for writing it. I especially related to when you wrote that a good teacher will inspire and push her students outside their comfort zones. Something I'm working a lot on myself lately. You sound like a great teacher!