Thursday, July 18, 2019

Teach Me Tonight

Were you formally trained as a writer? e.g., an MFA or college curriculum? Can you teach writing? Does it matter if you went to school for it?

The last “writing” course I took was in grade school, and that was penmanship. So, no, I have not had “formal” training as a writer. That’s not to say I feel formal training doesn’t matter. I don’t know what’s involved in a writing program, but I know many wonderful writers who have MFAs, so there is surely tremendous value to be found in a structured curriculum.

That said, writing isn’t like, say, medicine or jet engine maintenance. A misspelled word in a manuscript is a fail, but not in the same way a misdiagnosis of heartburn for an actual heart attack would be. Or a plane crash. I insist that my doctor have a degree and proper training because health and life are in play. There’s no excuse for flying by the seat of your pants in healthcare or aviation—at least not anymore—but writers can certainly experiment and learn from their mistakes without killing anyoneIn fact, I would go so far as to say that such a heuristic approach to writing is desirable. Creative pursuits are not programmable or predictable. If they were, we writers and painters and musicians would all be out of jobs, replaced by algorithms and robots and apps.

But back to the question of the week. While I’ve never studied writing per se, I believe all study, formal or Informal, is beneficial to the writer. In school, college, and graduate school, I studied literature, grammar, spelling, and foreign languages. All of these proved useful in developing the creative and structural elements of writing. The toolbox. But you could hand me the latest and greatest golfing equipment and that wouldn’t make me a great golfer. Or even an adequate one. 

The tools of our trade are necessary, but so are experience and familiarity, which come only through toil and repetition and reading. So, while my studies helped me along in my writing career, they’re by no means the sum total of my “writer’s education.” We should all enroll in the schools of life and of hard knocks. I’m a firm believer that writers need life experience before daring to tackle universal themes. The more the better. Without such preparation, the result is—more likely than not—recycled observations, stories, and characters.

So go to law school, medical school, or divinity school to prepare yourself for a career as a writer. Or the police academy, vocational school, beauty school. University or high school. Get a job, slop the pigs, seduce or be seduced. (That’s a good one.)  Have your heart broken, because you’ll need the memory of how you survived that when you become a writer and it happens again. And certainly explore the option of an MFA program. No knowledge, no matter now you acquire it, is wasted on the writer. But when you’re done with all that—rather, as you’re doing all that—write.


Brenda Chapman said...

Well said, James. A wide breadth of experience is the best teacher.

Susan C Shea said...

Good advice, Jim. And your Ellie Stone series is evidence that it works.