What can be taught?


Just finished up an online workshop — it’s like teaching with a paper bag over your head.  You want to see your student’s eyes, to see if they’re getting it, but you have to go by emails (always a tricky medium to use).  There are times I feel as if I’m too harsh, but then it’s compressed teaching (lots over info over 8 posts), and that’s always harsh.

And workshops always lead me back to wondering if there are some things about writing, about story telling, that can’t be taught.

I’ve heard some writers say there’s a certain something that a writer has or does not have–a talent–and if this lacking that person is never going to write a book that will sell.

On the other hand, I’m a great believer in technique and structure, and that if you have those two things, well, you may never hit the best seller list (that also requires not just talent, but luck), you can at least write a decent story that could sell.

But is there a certain something beyond technique, something that perhaps stirs a writer to write in the first place?  A quirk of mind perhaps that goes beyond the talent of putting words together?  Is there an innate skill with words that hits one person, but skips another?  An inner-ear perhaps for the rhythm in words, so that someone might well be language-deaf the same way that someone can be tone-deaf, so that while structure and technique can be taught, that inner-ear will always be missing?

Years ago, I had the luck to take a riding clinic from George Morris who went on to coach the Olympic team.  Brilliant rider–a classical rider.  Harsh teacher.  He never gave praise unless it was more than earned, and often could reduce someone to tears–but he was right. And you came out of his clinics a better rider.

He said that he’d rather have a solid technical rider over a brilliant natural rider. Because the technical rider always has those skills to fall back on–technique will never fail you.  But the brilliant rider will be brilliant one day, and then, the next day that brilliance may not shine–and there’s nothing then to save that rider from crashing and burning.

That’s stuck with me, and seems applicable to writing.

A writer with solid techniques–an understanding of grammar, story structure, scene structures, and how to build a character, show that character in action, and craft emotion into a scene–will be a solid writer. That writer may never be more than solid–but those techniques will never fail that writer. There won’t be brilliance that shines one day, and is dull the next (and that’s got to be a kind of hell in its own unreliable fashion).

So I think that maybe technique is enough–along with the burning desire to keep telling stories.

And I refuse to think that there’s anyone in this world lacking in imagination–that’s got to be hard-wired in our heads.

So perhaps there is a certain something that cannot be taught. There’s a gift that some folks have and it makes that person more than an average writer.

But there’s a place, thank god, for craftsmen in this world–for capable writers who can produce a good product on demand and on schedules.  And it’s not a bad place to be if it leaves you still writing.

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2 thoughts on “What can be taught?

  1. Thanks again for the great class, Shannon! I enjoyed reading this blog too. I agree with you that some people possess a stronger natural inclination for writing than others, but I also agree that much of the process can be taught. I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about writing as an art form–that writers just sit down and whip out a masterpiece without any planning or method. Actors train by taking classes in stage movement, voice, etc. Why shouldn’t writers train too? I think it’s all about honing your skills and continuing to challenge your abilities…and having the confidence to know your strengths and the willingness to work on your weaknesses. Will that make you a bestselling author? Maybe, maybe not. But you’ll never know if you don’t try. As far as dishing out “harsh” constructive criticism goes, this reminds me of a dance teacher I had in college. She had a rather blunt teaching style and often received “complaints” from students about her sometimes overwhelming honesty. One day in class she said “If I’m giving you constructive criticism, it’s a good thing. When I stop critiquing you, that’s when you need to worry. It means you aren’t worth my time to try to improve.” Kinda harsh, but I try to keep that in mind when receiving criticism…if it helps me become a stronger writer in the long run, then bring it on. 🙂 Anyways, thanks again for the great instruction and hope to see you in class again soon!

    • That’s very true about “if there’s nothing here to improve, you’re in trouble”. I also think there are different levels of teachers for different levels of students. One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced writers make is to get themselves over their heads–they either take on a project that they cannot execute well, or they take a workshop that is advanced when they haven’t mastered the basics. Then they crash and burn and wonder why.

      We live in an fast, impatient culture–but the basics have not changed in that it takes time and effort to master any skill.

      Of couse, I also subscribe to the philosophy that if you’re going to get discouraged about your writing and quit, do everyone a favor and do that NOW. Save yourself the heartache, and everyone else the bad pages, and go find a hobby that will give you what you need.

      For the rest of us, it’s back to the terror of the blank page.

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