Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Can you train a writer?

After adding a comment to my friend Gary Corby’s excellent blog A dead man fell from the sky, he asked whether I had an opinion about a question in one of the other comments. Since it’s central to writing, I thought it would be worth replaying it and my response here.

The question came from someone whose friend had suggested that he needed some form of training (in connection with his writing). This friend said to him ‘why don’t you attend a writing course?’ and he was wondering whether it would be worth doing so. My response was as follows:

The question would need an extended debate really but my quick(ish) response is: first, who is this ‘friend’ and what are his/her qualifications as a literary critic? What exactly does he/she mean by suggesting you’re not ‘trained’? Is it even possible to ‘train’ someone to write? I think if the impulse to write is there, that’s the main qualification to do so. We all learn as we write, we refine and adapt our style and vocabulary to each subject.

If I’m asked for one piece of advice to offer would-be writers, I usually say ‘Trust your own voice’. By that I mean don’t get fooled into thinking there’s a ‘right’ way to write. It’s better if you can spell and if your grammar’s not so feeble that your sentences are incomprehensible but outside those ‘restrictions’, any mode of expression is legitimate. If it’s way out of line with ‘normal’ speaking and writing, you may find it hard to get an audience but the important thing is not to think you need big words, flowery phrases or ‘writing’. Read Elmore Leonard’s 10 ‘rules’ for writing – they’re amusing and to the point (and valuable).

I’m wary of creative writing courses. I’m sure there are some brilliant ones, but there are also plenty which indoctrinate their graduates into parroting stuff about shifting points of view, not starting paragraphs with ‘And…’ and all sorts of other things that have little to do with creativity.

(And, as a postscript, let me ask how many of you noticed the grammatical mistake I made in the opening sentence. I only spotted it myself on rereading and decided to leave it there to generate some apoplexy amongst people who get upset about faulty grammar and spelling. In other words, people like me.)

1 comment:

Jaden Terrell said...

I love writing workshops. I"ve taken quite a few and learned something from every one of them--some more than others, I'll admit. I think as long as you can pick and choose what works for you rather than blindly accepting everything the teacher/master/guru says, they can be very useful.

The best ones I've been to were by Donald Maass. I could practically feel my brain expanding, and my sense that what I learned there took my writing to a higher level was corroborated by a number of readers I trust.

I've known some people who went to get their MFAs in creative writing and ran up against the things you mention--teachers trying to squeeze their students into their own molds so they churn out whatever the teacher deems "literary works."