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Yes, Virginia, Writing Can Be Taught

There is a fine article in The Atlantic entitled “So You Want to Be a Writer,” and it’s not trying to sell anything. It assumes writing can be taught, which is fine by me. Writing can be taught, and Virginia Woolf settles the matter definitively, as far as I am concerned. The Complete Short Fiction of Virginia Woolf spans her career–from 1906 to 1941–and you can see Woolf getting the hang of writing as time goes by. How did she improve so drastically? She wrote every single damn day.

As John Kenneth Galbraith points out in The Atlantic‘s article,

All writers know that on some golden mornings they are touched by the wand–are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth. I have experienced those moments myself. Their lesson is simple: It’s a total illusion. And the danger in the illusion is that you will wait for those moments. Such is the horror of having to face the typewriter that you will spend all your time waiting. I am persuaded that most writers, like most shoemakers, are about as good one day as the next (a point which Trollope made), hangovers apart. The difference is the result of euphoria, alcohol, or imagination. The meaning is that one had better go to his or her typewriter every morning and stay there regardless of the seeming result. It will be much the same.

What’s more–in my experience, at least–even if it’s a rough morning, if a writer trudges along long enough, she’ll hit her stride after a while. Sometimes the mind leads the body–and sometimes it follows. Sit down to do the thing, and before you know it, it’ll be less like pulling teeth and more like euphoria. Like with running, sometimes you need that first twenty minutes of hating yourself and the run in order to get liftoff.

Writing can be taught in workshop only as much as literature can be taught in literature classes. That is, your teacher can’t do it for you. If you’re writing every day and reading every day, you will learn, and your teacher can help guide you. But if you aren’t making the effort on your own, there is nothing anyone else can do to help you. The point of a writing workshop, as I see it, is to help make the process a little faster and a little less painful–by making the author aware of the choices she is making in her writing, for example, and by providing her with a captive audience, so that she may more easily consider her reader when she is writing by herself. After all, the point of writing is communication–so keeping the audience in mind is hardly a bad thing.

Reading is also key, especially reading the classics. As The Atlantic sums up,

In days gone by, writers-in-training honed their craft not by soliciting advice from successful writers but by simply absorbing the greatness of those who came before them.

They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?