I’ve spent a great deal of time pondering a question that continues to insert itself into conversations about education and its relationship to writing as I’ve navigated my way around applying to MFA programs. I’ve maintained my foremost opinion on the subject even as I have questioned and re-questioned my decision to put off grad school in favor of saving and spending what money I would have spent on the degree to travel and experience other cultures first. My answer does not pertain specifically to the MFA nor does it cover all of my opinions on writing and education (that would be much too long and would likely result in your boredom).
The Question: Can Writing Be Taught?
Writing as a functional form of communication can and should be taught. Writing skills can be honed, edited, and expanded with the help of creative writing programs or on the writer’s own. Still, the writing that torches the soul and causes the next generation to read your work as you have read Hemingway’s or Kerouac’s cannot be taught.
What You Can Be Taught:
Success depends on competent writing whether you are drafting a résumé, typing en email to your boss, or penning a request for grant money. This type of writing unfolds as a recipe of sorts in classrooms across the US:
1. Identify verbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, and possessives (though it appears several people missed these lessons and need a repeat) to construct coherent sentences.
2. Thesis statements and transitional sentences are imperative.
3. Active verbs carry a sentence further than passive verbs.
4. Minimize the use of adverbs. Show, don’t tell.
5. Pro-con writing and persuasive arguments are not the same.
6. The opening paragraph states your objective, your middle paragraphs support it, and your final paragraph concludes everything you just wrote into an articulate point.
7. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
This formulaic list grows throughout our primary, secondary, and post-secondary educations, both expanding in length and adding addendums to guidelines previously learned. We adhere to the most basic of principles and formats while learning to adapt and bend certain rules (the breaking of which, of course, is wholly subjective, sometimes frowned upon, and not immune to disappointing results).
Once we’ve mastered this basic recipe, we should all be able to write a cover letter and compose an email as effectively as we should all be able to soften butter (not melt it). In a perfect world, then, if all former students followed the recipe then they could write competent sentences, informative materials, and sparkling prose.
Everyone should be able to follow the recipe they’re given, right?
Yet, just as Aunt CeCe somehow manages to turn your award-winning chocolate chip cookie recipe into speckled hunks of cardboard that even milk can’t save, so it is with writing.
Recipes – no matter how strictly you follow them or how many times you try them out – do not guarantee a memorable, or even adequate, product.
There are, however, many people who can do some or most of these things most of the time who will find some degree of success with their writing so long as they continue working on the craft. For every top chef, there are hundreds of cooks in the same cuisine whose restaurants we frequent.
What You Cannot Be Taught:
Innate talent, honed and edited to within the nth degree of its existence, is the difference between competent writing and writing that alters the literary landscape causing hearts to palpitate and minds to wonder for days, weeks, years. It is hearing how the space between words bridges an idea or pushes them apart; how words fall together in an expected cadence or in a crashing crescendo; how a dream or idea spells itself in a particular combination of letters rather than in pictures or frame-by-frame.
It is the editing, that taste-test to know what something needs, which makes all the difference between a satisfactory product and an exceptional product.
This ability, like top chefs (and pastry chefs) who have otherworldly senses of taste and smell, can be refined but not taught. Every person can (and should) receive the recipes and follow them, but a certain propensity for how the final product should turn out will always separate the Aunt Ceces from the top chefs, the mediocre writers from the wordsmiths.
– M. Ray Hall