13 May 2015 - 7:07 pm

Awful attitudes towards studying writing

To study or not to study?  (Picture By Lewis Hine, via Wikimedia Commons)

To study or not to study?
(Picture By Lewis Hine, via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a subject that raises its head on my radar every now and then, so I thought I’d finally write something about it. You know the kind of article I mean: studying writing is a waste of time; you can’t teach writing; writing degrees and qualifications are worthless.

Recently, a university professor (Ryan Boudinot) wrote a post about MFA programs, stating all the things he couldn’t say while he was teaching one. If you are an aspiring writer, I advise you don’t waste your time on that article. If you can’t resist clicking, then please, go read Chuck Wendig’s wonderful response to it as well.

Chuck says pretty much everything I was going to in response to that article, so I’m not going to go over the whole thing again here. I am, however, going to add a little more to the discourse.

I think it’s important to remember that university professors sometimes teach because they have to, not because they want to. It’s a part of their tenure. There are many reasons why a person might choose to become a professor at a university, and teaching is only one of a long list (money, research opportunities, paid writing time, resources, and legitimacy are among the other reasons). Sure, some of them love it and are great at it, but in my experience, they’re the minority. Most of them are okay. Some of them are terrible.

So when a professor starts to go on about how important ‘talent’ is, I get suspicious. Reading between the lines of the recent article, I get the impression that Boudinot found those with ‘talent’ the easiest to teach. He didn’t seem to know what to do with those without said ‘talent’. I’m sorry, but that’s pretty much what his role is to these students: someone who is supposed to teach and mentor them to become better writers. From the tone of his article, it sounds like he would simply throw his hands up at those students and write them off.

Talent is defined in many different ways. I put it in quotes above because I don’t know that I fully agree with Boudinot’s usage of it. He seems to think that those with talent have an innate connection to the written word and are able to produce exactly what he wants. Perhaps that’s so, but it’s also a very narrow view. An illiterate kid might have the same kind of talent but lack the skill to write it down because she hasn’t ever been taught how to. Another student may be following bad advice from a previous teacher. Yet another may not yet have found that one thing that makes him connect with the words on the page in that particular way that speaks to him. This is why they need a mentor.

Also, they produced what he was looking for. Different professors will want different things, so this is a particularly subjective assessment. I know of university professors teaching poetry who despise rhyming and would mark down students who used it. So who is Boudinot to define talent and what says he’s a good teacher?

One of Boudinot’s students came out and wrote an interesting piece in response to his former teacher’s article. In it, he sums up the issue with Boudinot’s teaching methods nicely:

“This is one school of thought on teaching: tough love. I’ve had experience with it in my life. Sometimes it pushes people. Sometimes it pushes them over the edge.”

“Tough love isn’t necessarily a fundamentally flawed pedagogy. The problem arises when a teacher with an inability to determine which students can handle it and which can’t applies the method indiscriminately.”

Teaching isn’t an easy profession. I think it’s undervalued in most Western countries (which is another post for another time), and I don’t think it’s as easy as people assume. Being very good at something and being able to explain that something in a way that another brain can absorb and understand are not at all connected. Being able to explain it so a group of brains can understand is harder still. It’s an exercise in communication, translation, empathy, psychology, and raw knowledge. Sometimes these skills coincide in the same body but often they do not. Training can overcome the gap (and I believe that training in teaching is essential, because it comes naturally to only a few of us).

Teaching art, in particular, is a tricky business. Facts are a case of learning and memorising. Theories can be learned and understood (usually on a logical level). Critical thought as a mode of examining things that can be taught. Art, on the other hand… You can’t have a multiple-choice test for art the way you can for science or maths. There often aren’t straightforward right or wrong answers to art questions, and far too often, I’ve seen students being forced to learn how the ‘right’ answer in art is whichever one suits a particular teacher’s tastes.

You can teach someone to appreciate art, but you can’t teach them how to feel it. You can teach them the techniques and technical aspects of the art, but you can’t teach them how to put them together into something meaningful. You can teach them how to write, but you can’t teach them what to say. You can’t teach them how to be a writer.

So what does that mean in terms of writing courses and qualifications? In my opinion, they should be arming artists with the tools they need to ply whatever artistic trade speaks to them. Critical examination, good practice, bad practice, grammar, spelling, how to punctuate, formatting, layout: all of these things are important and useful for a writer to know. Techniques like metaphor, allegory, and the different forms of writing are also useful.

Some of the technical knowledge will fall by the wayside of an artist’s journey as superfluous, similar to how you might teach a painter to use sixteen different types of paint but only one will suit that painter’s personal style of expression. Sometimes, knowing what you don’t want to use is as important as knowing what you do want to put in your piece. Knowing how and when a particular tool is effective is useful even if you don’t use it, because what if you can apply that principle in a new and different way? It’s all about understanding your options and making informed choices.

I’m a firm believer that an artist should know the rules before they can be broken effectively, too. Subverting rules can be very effective, but it’s hard to do it successfully by accident. Being well-armed with the technical skills and tools gives you an arsenal to draw on, but how you use them is always your choice. Part of what I try to do with this blog is to help writers to find and understand those tools; I share them so others might use them. I don’t call myself a teacher but I hope my efforts and experiences have some value.

I studied English Literature and Creative Writing at university, and have a Bachelor of Arts degree. It’s a pretty useless degree, as far as careers go, beyond being ‘a degree’ (often, that’s all jobs will ask for, not really caring what subject the degree is in). But I chose it because I love books, reading, and writing, and I wanted to study it.

I don’t regret spending three years at university, or the other writing courses I did before and after that degree, or the money I spent on the studying and books. Sometimes I feel that I would have got more from it if I had waited a few years, because I wrote pretty much what they asked me to write. I didn’t know what I wanted to say, and I didn’t know that I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I’ve always had stories I wanted to tell, but it took me years to find the voice that really fit me. The tools I learned during that studying weren’t a waste of time, though, and I got a lot of goodness from the critical reading and essays side of the courses.

I’m sure others find it much sooner than I did. Others might take longer. Right now, I’m in a good place where I’m writing the things that I want to share with other people; I think I’ve found my voice. I firmly believe that it’s not something you can teach someone. Help them find it: maybe.

I’m curious to hear about others’ experiences with being taught writing, particularly creative writing. What do you all think?

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  1. Francisco says:

    I know that my writing has improved since starting the Creative Writing evening class. Just being pushed to try different things (and the feedback received afterwards) has contributed to what I can do today.

    Edison said that genius was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. A lot of people forget that. A lot of people think that there’s this magical thing called “talent”. I have yet to hear of an example where talent didn’t imply lots of practice.

    May 16th, 2015 at 3:19 pm

  2. Mel says:

    Glad to hear the class is working out for you. 🙂

    I completely agree about talent. I mean, some people are naturally better at some things than others. But to be really great at it? That takes work and practice.

    I saw an interesting comment the other day (I forget where) that said that musicians are lauded for practicing, but writers are discouraged from it. I think that can be so true. Any kind of skill, any kind of art, takes practice and work if you want to be really good at it.

    May 17th, 2015 at 4:28 pm

  3. Francisco says:

    Thank you very much.

    I posted a comment in the comments section of a webcomic that may be relevant to the discussion about “tough love”. Unfortunately, as I’m on my mobile, I can’t just copy and paste it here. The comment can be found on the Datachasers webcomic, episode “Mild Chastisement” (I’m HiFranc on that site and the comment was replying to someone talking about parenting).

    May 17th, 2015 at 6:01 pm

  4. Mel says:

    The comic episode in question is here.

    Very true. Different people have different reactions and needs, and you have to teach them accordingly (whether you’re a parent or teacher). If you want to be effective, anyway. Humans are not ‘one size fits all’.

    May 18th, 2015 at 10:02 am