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Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

This article is more than 7 years old.

You can't teach someone to be a great writer, but you can probably teach them to be a decent writer.

At least that's what I've come to conclude in my 15-plus years as a creative writing instructor. I've taught poetry writing, fiction writing, essay writing, travel writing, cover letter writing, and book proposal writing. I've taught fourth graders and octogenarians, teens and expats, ballsy college students determined to make a splash, and shy, suburban mothers. I’ve taught doctors, lawyers, bartenders and everyone in between.

Everyone, it seems, wants to write. And publish.

People increasingly harbor dreams of becoming the next breakout J.K. Rowling or John Grisham. They're trawling the twin oceans of idea and marketplace for the next "Hunger Games" or "The Glass Castle." You know the fantasy: write that novel in your spare (ha!) time, get discovered, and a multi-book, multi-million, book-TV-movie-theme-park contract can't be far behind.

Unlike the media of oil paints or musical notation, we all have a background using language. That makes the art of writing seem deceptively simple. It isn't.

The Internet and self-publishing don't help this perception, either, tempting us — almost telling us — Hey, you non-professional, untrained writer, you too can add your voice to the gazillions of words and works out there. Put up a blog, hang out a virtual shingle and readers will be hanging on your every word.

Take MFA programs: 50 years ago, only a handful of them existed. Now nearly every university in the country has one. Then there are literally thousands of literary magazines and small presses in whose pages you can find fame, writing conferences to discover (and to be discovered at), and countless "how to write" books to scour for secret writerly tricks. Can't do it alone? You can hire the services of private editors, book doctors, and publicists.

In short, the creative writing industry — and it is an industry — has sprung up in the rich soil of these wannabe writers' collective dreams, nourished by, one hopes, hard work.

And it is hard work. Success requires years of trial and error, crumpled pages and debilitating bouts of rejection.

Unlike the media of oil paints or musical notation, we all have a background using language. That makes the art of writing seem deceptively simple. It isn't.

People ask me how long it took to write my book and I say one of two things: "Two years" or, when I'm feeling more enigmatic, "Twenty-two years." By which I mean: I could not have written my book as a freshly minted college graduate at age 21. I was a poet then. My book, and my authorial persona, both needed another two decades of festering, stumbling, confidence building, rejection, torment, doubt, and practice, practice, practice. I needed to write poetry for 10 years before I could become a journalist, before I could become an author. I needed to grow up and find something to say.

Which brings us to the questions at hand: Can you teach creative writing? And what is a MFA good for, anyway?

Second query first. I don't think you need a master's level degree to call yourself a writer. But for me, the program helped. When I got my MFA from Louisiana State University in the early 90s, Shaquille O'Neal was an undergrad hoops star there and I was a woefully naive novice. I liked to tell stories and I liked to play with language. But I knew nothing about the craft of a story, or a poem. Or what it felt like to have my work read by my peers and taken apart and put back together again.

Did I have professors who taught me things? Sure.

Today, my MFA degree means little. But back then, it allowed me to try on that pointy hat called "writer" and see how it felt.

As in painting and music and dance, students can be taught fundamentals that will vastly improve their initial efforts, and save them from frustrations and dead ends (but not all frustrations and dead ends) down the road. A drawing student who gets even rudimentary instructions in anatomy or perspective can transform their scribbles into recognizable forms. Same with the neophyte writers in my classrooms. They can learn that the first lines, first paragraphs, and first pages of their work are key to winning over your reader; thus, make them awesome — memorable, suspenseful and full of verve. Or, students can be taught that language like "dappled," "quaint" and "the deep abyss of my despair" is stale and overused. When I implore my students to find fresher language, they find that the clichés in their own work begin to scream at them like, well, hopefully not banshees. How about Bolsheviks? Boom boxes?

In short, keep in mind Malcolm Gladwell's notorious "10,000-Hour Rule" — mastering any craft is going to take around 10,000 hours of practice. You don't splash color on a canvas today and expect a solo show in Soho in six months; don't expect the same rapid success and recognition for your writing.

What's largely missing in creative writing instruction is schooling in how to be a writer. The marketplace is fickle, baffling, and cutthroat. I loved my MFA program, but it taught me nothing about how to sell my work or make a career as a writer. Fortunately, this is changing everywhere writing is being taught, especially at non-degree writing programs like Boston's Grub Street, where I happen to be an instructor.

Publishing is in upheaval. Writers must be the central engines of their careers. More than degrees and classes, and beyond creating good work, what writers need are ways to recharge, remain hopeful and compete in a literary landscape ruled by social media, diminishing advances, consolidation of the old presses and a vast diffusion of the new.

Today, my MFA degree means little. But back then, it allowed me to try on that pointy hat called "writer" and see how it felt. And, the program gave me thick skin and knocked me down a few notches, both of which I desperately needed.

I didn't ever cry in a workshop (OK, maybe I sniffled), but I often felt eviscerated, which writers need to feel. To be crumpled like a bad draft, survive, and live to write another page.


Editor's Note: The nation's largest gathering of creative writers and creative writing teachers, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Annual Conference & Bookfair brings some 11,000 writers to Boston, March 7-9.

This program aired on March 5, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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