Opinion

Best of Book Riot: You Can’t Teach Someone to Write (Except You Can)

To celebrate the end of the year, we’re running some of our favorite posts from the last six months. We’ll be back with all-new stuff on January 7th.
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There are so many aphorisms about writing I will co-sign. “Writing is rewriting.” “You have to collect a lot of pink slips if you want to be a real writer.” “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

And then there’s “You can’t teach someone to write,” a saying I want to pour gasoline over, drop a lit match atop of, and walk away from like a gangster as the aphorisms bursts into flames while some thug life song with a lot of window-rattling bass plays.

I really hate the adage “You can’t teach someone to write.” I think it’s one of the most untrue statements about making art and being an artist that I have ever heard. And still I continue and continue and continue to hear it.

But empires rise and fall. And the time has come for you to fall, good sir. Now is the hour where I must debunk you, motherf—er. So let’s debunk.

Let’s get this out of the way. You HAVE to teach someone how to write because writers don’t emerge from the head of Zeus fully formed, dressed in armor, ready for battle. You have to learn how to spell words and construct sentences, you have to figure out vocabulary, you have to read book after book after book and figure out what you love and what you hate and what confuses you and what intimidates you and what inspires you. And then you have to finally get to that dizzying precipice where you write that first sentence, that first page, that first completed work, trying with all your heart and soul to be like every writer you have ever loved. And you don’t do all that by yourself. No, don’t be arrogant, you don’t. There’s a combination of family members and English teachers and librarians and authors who have been dead for hundreds of years and loser-nerd friends who also aren’t good at sports or getting leads in school plays) who trade books with you and talk about them with you after you both are finished reading. Those people taught you how to write. You have to be taught how to write just like you have to be taught how to eat solid food and tie your shoelaces. You learn as a child how to be an adult, and you learn as someone who loves art how to be an artist. There’s a progression–of course there is–what is a human life if not a series of lessons you learn (and re-learn, and re-re-learn) to become something you weren’t before? You can be taught. You can become.

But you say, “No, you’re blowing this aphorism up into something it was never meant to be. This aphorism is talking about writing TEACHERS and writing CLASSES and MFA programs and how some people are born brilliant and destined for greatness and some people are born mediocre and are destined for nothing.”

And I still call shenanigans, I call shenanigans even harder on your rebuttal, Imaginary Person Who is Arguing With Me Right Now.

I know we are in love with the backstories of Hemingway being an ambulance driver in World War I, George Saunders working in a slaughterhouse, and Stephen King washing maggot-infested sheets for low pay. We love the mythology of people rising from suck jobs and becoming the Great Writers of Our Time. And I think working suck jobs is absolutely how some people become great writers. I also think sitting in a classroom for a few years and spending a lot (and I mean A LOT) of time in front of your computer is how some people become great writers. Computers and classrooms don’t come with the same bragging rights as ambulances and maggot sheets, but that doesn’t make these experiences less valuable. I think you need super-turbo-charged life experience to be a writer who has something worth saying. You also need to be able to say it effectively. I have seen writing classes of all levels help writers say what they want to say effectively. No, not all those writers get book deals or sell their screenplays. Most of them don’t. But don’t mix up art and commerce. Don’t assume that means their time in a classroom did not help them figure out something about their craft, about their business, about themselves. Even if a writer hated his class, his program, everything he produced during his time as a student, he has still learned. He’s learned what he hates. And if you have learned something, you have been taught. It’s that simple.

Why this backlash against artistic education? Why the overwhelming reluctance to acknowledge that bad can become okay, okay can become good, good can become great, and great can become extraordinary? Are we afraid we do not have the time, the energy, the heart, or the sheer grit to support a student who is bad, but who wants to become okay? Or a student who is okay and wants to become extraordinary? Do we as a society not believe ourselves capable of serious artistic progress or dazzling achievement? Is that why we are reluctant to accept that it is possible for others? I don’t have the answers. I don’t know why we’re so uncomfortable with the idea that talent is not a gift from the gods, but a craft that must be worked on for thousands upon thousands of hours. I don’t have the answers. All I know is I hate that there is a question.

You can become a better writer by an inch or by a hundred thousands miles. You still have become better. And that deserves an aphorism. It also deserves applause.