Saturday, May 16, 2015
It’s comforting to think you could have done something, that you have an untapped reservoir of talent that you will someday dip into when you are done doing all those other things that are getting in your way, after you have met all your deadlines and fulfilled all your commitments, which of course you will never do (meet the commitments or write the novel). To imagine you could have been a writer, a contender, a star is more pleasant than doing the hard work it takes to be one only to find out you don’t have what it takes. I read somewhere that 90% of people think they are better than average drivers. I think 100% of the attendees of writing classes, either in MFA programs or in places like Skidmore’s Summer Writers’ Institute, think they could be great, if only they didn’t have to pick up the dry-cleaning, and the leaves in the damn yard would rake themselves.
Writing classes presently thrive, for both memoir and fiction. Some commentators see them as a kind of portal to self discovery, and even a means to mental health. I believe that about as much as I believe in Pyramid Power, but let’s leave that for later. Others see them as a sign we are becoming increasingly narcissistic, telling ordinary stories about mundane lives in prosaic ways, believing that the lives we chronicle or create are more interesting than they truly are. I will leave that question for cultural critics more learned than I. One thing these classes can do is make you feel like you are more dedicated to writing than perhaps you actually are. For another, they help perpetuate the above-mentioned delusions of grandeur. Still, I am pretty sure some people benefit from them. They are, after all, merely tools, and tools used properly can perform a function. And anyway, writing classes can be great fun, a place to meet like-minded souls, especially in those times of year when they don’t have new episodes of THE BLACKLIST or BETTER CALL SAUL on the boob tube.
At a time when it is harder and harder to make a living as a writer, to actually sell your writing to anyone, more and more people are ponying up the bucks to learn how to write. And although many of them will tell you they are doing so merely as a recreational activity, to joyously reactivate their long dormant literary muscles, most of them secretly harbor dreams of greatness. Including me, to tell the truth, even though I know most writers, even good ones, even if I am a good one (which of course is open to debate), will never be published, although some of them may become writing teachers. That is the weirdly incestuous thing about the present state of writing—it is easier to make a living off the dreams that other people have of being real writers than to be one yourself.
Are the people who pay for these courses (the ones who truly work hard and try to learn what is being “taught”) getting their money’s worth? Can writing be taught? Can instruction make a mediocre writer good, or a good one great? The prevailing wisdom about artistic endeavor is that effort is more important than talent, and that the truly virtuosic must spend 10,000 hours or more becoming virtuosos. While it is true that most people don’t have the drive to put in those hours, are those with the will to do so guaranteed elite status? If this is true, does it hold true regardless of the potential for verbal acuity nature blessed you with at birth? Putting aside for a moment the subjective nature of writing as an art, and the fact that even a great writer can remain unpublished, I just can’t imagine virtuosos can be made without first possessing virtuosic gifts. Some of writing is indeed perspiration, the application of your butt to the seat of your writing chair for long periods of time, and yet inspiration is part of the process too. Some people are never going to create a truly interesting metaphor or simile in all the many tedious pages they write. Their words are flightless birds. I wanted to be a great basketball player when I was a kid, and at some point had to face the facts—I did not have the size and athletic ability required, and I never would. The untutored six-foot-six guy that could dunk the ball behind his head had an advantage over me that no amount of training was ever going to erase.
But then there is more room for delusion in writing than in basketball, isn’t there? If the man I am guarding drops 40 on me, and blocks every shot I attempt, it is clear that I have been outgunned and outmanned. But writing greatness is not so clearly defined. The incoherent can claim to be too far ahead of the intellectual curve to be understood, and the mundane can put there boringness down to the short declarative style of a Hemingway, even as they fail to grasp that Hemingway managed to say more than was written on the page, while they are managing to say less.
Like me with basketball, it would appear there are some hopeless cases. Those with a kind of writing aphasia, who were born with the writing part of their brain missing, and who don’t know it. Because that is another way that writing is unique, and uniquely beguiling—we all use language and we all manage to say something interesting every now and then, like the broken clock that is right twice a day, so it is easy to fool ourselves into thinking we can produce deathless prose. But what of the person who has some facility with the language—not a prodigy, but a journeyman, not particularly well-read, but somewhat read, who doesn’t have a huge capacity for reflection and hard work, but rather has a somewhat better than average one? Can this person become better with instruction? Or will, as some people claim, writing class be the death of all possibility for true originality for this every man, every writer?
To put it simply—some things about writing are more easily taught then others. True originality and verbal invention are not teachable, writing class can make you more aware of things like problems with reasoning or structure, tense, missing links in a chain of argument, and it can make your work more accessible and coherent, but also more bland and ordinary, by taking all that is polarizing or controversial in it and smoothing it over or taking it out in order to please everyone in the class who has some kind of complaint with it. You can get better with help—not great, but better. But you can also get worse. Knowing who to listen to and who to ignore is essential in writing classes, which brings us back to a version of the original question—can knowing who to listen to be taught?
It breaks down along the lines of art and craft. Craft can be taught. Technique can be transmitted from one human being to another. Invention, originality, voice—these cannot. And one without the other makes for only half a writer. And the more important part is the talent—a writer with talent will eventually teach herself craft. There was an excellent movie called FINDING FORRESTER, starring Sean Connery as a JD Salinger type of misanthropic and reclusive writer. He takes a young black kid with great talent under his wing. The kid is bedeviled by a teacher at the preppy high school he gets into, and he asks Forrester, who knows the guy, what the man’s story is. Connery replies—he knows everything there is to know about writing and he still can’t do it.
Next week—my adventures in writing workshops, classes, symposia, and salons along with my thoughts on the efficacy of instruction manuals.
© 2015 Mike Welch