Sunday, October 26, 2008

Back to "School"

In Saturday's Age newspaper, there was an article about US novelist, Francine Prose, who says she believes writing can't be taught. Now, for someone like her who has been teaching writing on and off for twenty years, I find this an odd thing to say. Does she mean that in twenty years, she has never seen a writer grow and improve, and finally get published? Hmmm, she is either a bad teacher or she has no interest in her students outside the classroom (and they haven't bothered to tell her of their successes).

In the past six months, I've received wonderful news about my former students who have had novels and stories accepted, including one who was shortlisted this year for the Vogel Award (hi, Demet!). These are all writers who we have seen take huge steps forward while studying our course. I'm sure you could argue that they would have made those improvements anyway, if they had just kept writing and reading, but I'd disagree with you. To me, being a writer is always about learning and improving, and working on your craft. Do we hear this said about artists who go to art school? Or musicians who go to the Conservatory of Music or similar schools? No. Why on earth people have to continue to "service" the myth that the only true writers are those with some kind of magical, special talent is beyond me.

Yes, talent helps. I've also seen people that want to write who put words on the page which are unreadable. Either they are unable to get a grip on language and sentence construction (and are often unwilling to learn) or in the translation from brain to page, something falls flat. Those people may never write something publishable. I've also seen talented writers who don't want to put in the hard yards. They don't actually love the act of writing enough to stick at it for years and years. So perseverance is a key factor.

But so is the utter willingness to learn and grow, and the determination to improve. When it comes right down to it, if you feel that every story or every poem or every book you write needs to be better than the one before, or every draft must be better than the one before, you're on the right track. A writing course helps enormously. Suddenly you are surrounded by other writers, thousands of ideas, hours and hours of advice and information, deadlines, workshopping - it's an experience that, if you fully engage, can't help but make you a better writer. So as well as being taught, you are also learning to teach yourself. Courses don't last forever.

This week, I am going back to school. Totally self-imposed, but at my own pace. A while ago, I paid for Margie Lawson's course (lecture notes) on Empowering Characters' Emotions. I must've read the first two lectures about four times, but to be honest, I wasn't in the right place to undertake it seriously. Now I am. Now I have two novels that need major revision, and that revision, in both cases, has to focus on character. So before I start either revision, I'm going to sit down and work my way through the course. I already know what's in it, I know what I want to get out of it, and I'm ready. Is that the school bell ringing?


Avis Exley said...

I think some people are born to write, just as some people are born with an athletic build. However, just like an athlete, a writer cannot improve without practice and this is where the teaching comes in.

Writing every day, reading how-to books, taking courses and generally putting pen to paper is the only way to improve (and succeed) as a writer. The more ideas running round your head, the more you will produce and the less likely an author is to suffer from writers' block.

People with a creative energy are born with a desire to pursue that calling - musicians, dancers, artists and writers. But to be successful they must practise, learn and do. There's no alternative to hard work and, the reason most authors remain unpublished, is that they never finished writing their books

Elaine Saunders
Author - Fiction Writing Exercises

Sherryl said...

You're right about never finishing! Even the students with a great story and good abilities fall by the wayside when it comes to getting more than 5000 words out.

I've also seen students who don't have a lot of natural ability work really really hard, and improve enormously, to publication standard. I've learned to never "write anyone off"!!

Kristi Holl said...

How funny that I should read this right after reading a chapter of Francine's book READ LIKE A WRITER. It's very much about learning to be a better writer. You wrote: "So as well as being taught, you are also learning to teach yourself." Like your classes, her book really is all about how to teach yourself by studying other people's writing in a "close reading" kind of way. (Remember when we did those close reading exercises in SA?) I don't know if I can teach someone to write either (from scratch), but I'm pretty sure I can teach a new writer how to acquire the tools to get better.
Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid blog

Sherryl said...

I've been including close reading in my classes for quite a while now, because I do think it's so valuable. And along with that I also teach close editing. Both are real eye-openers for those who have never thought about what really happens on the page, and how the writer gets there.

The great thing about a class is to discover this together, and be able to talk about it - leading to more learning.