Saturday, September 22, 2007

Can writing be taught?

I like the way Jane Smiley turns that question around in Thirteen Way of Looking At a Novel: Can writing be learned?

I assume that I learned to write somewhere. It’s hard to say where, but I must have learned it somewhere, right? And if it can be learned, it stands to reason that it can be taught.

That’s a flip answer and I don’t know that I’d defend it to the death, but I do lean that way. I’ve never liked the anti-intellectualism in the question “Can writing be taught?” anyway. It always seems to come out of ulterior motives—an urge to poke holes in “book learnin’” and a general hostility toward teachers. It’s really a very territorial question, as if I spend energy and time doing things my way, it might devalue what someone else has.

That’s not to say that the ways that writing is being taught in MFA programs or anywhere else are necessarily successful. I just don’t accept the presumption that writing can’t be taught.

But, the devil his due, whenever I see this discussed among writers who have taught—like in the Paris Review interviews—they always seem to answer that writing can’t be taught. So I postpone a final conclusion.

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