Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Teaching Writing

Over in her blog, my friend Barbara Rogan poses the question "Can writing be taught?" It is not as easy to answer as it might appear.

Anyone can write.
On the first day of every CTY class that I teach, I have the students go to the first page of their notebooks and write the sentence, "I can write." I then go around the room and ask each of them, "Can you write?" Indeed, they all can.
On the next line, they add "I can write anything." And, again, I poll the class, asking if they can write a poem, an essay, a short story, a review, etc. Again, they reply in the affirmative.
On the third line, they add "I can write anything if I try." And that, I tell them, is the goal of the course. We will explore a wide variety of types of writing and the key is to try to do every one. "If, at any point in the next three weeks, you tell me, 'I can't do this, Mr. R,' I will send you back to this page in your notebook."

Anyone can write anything.
There are no restrictions about who can write poetry or novels or songs or any other type of writing you can think of. All it takes is your own determination to do so.

Anyone can write anything if they try.
 All you need is paper and pen or keyboard and monitor or any other means of getting the words out of your head and onto something you can read.

But just because you can do this does not guarantee that what you write will be something anyone else wants to read.


So, can someone be taught to write?

Sentence structure, grammar, spelling -- they have rules that can be learned.  Tone, voice, audience -- they can be explained with examples and understood. I can explain sensory detail, comparison and contrast, the concept of "show,don't tell," and any number of tricks I use to spark my imagination. Learn all these things and you will be a better writer.

And no. What I cannot teach is creativity. Like the ability to play baseball at the Major League level or play the violin like a virtuoso, being an excellent writer is a talent that some people are born with and most people are not. You can learn all the rules and follow them completely, but without that last piece of the puzzle you will be just one of many. (That's not to say you can't become a successful writer; some mediocre authors have managed to make a fortune by writing the right book at the right time.) 

I'm reminded of two colorists who worked at DC Comics when I was Production Director. One learned every rule there was about coloring a comic book page -- using complementary colors, how to draw the reader's eye to a specific part of the page, how to make the important action stand out -- and had a long and successful career as a journeyman in the business. The other had a talent for coloring; she could look at a page and instinctively know what would work. Yes, she too knew the rules, but she also knew when she could break them for a better effect. And it was that ability that set her apart from her peers and won her accolades and awards.  

It is the same with writing. Plenty of authors can be taught what they need to reach journeyman status. It is the rare few who have the talent to excel... and that's the part that no one can teach.

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