I Can’t Teach You to Write

In the past 15 years, I’ve taught a lot of writing classes. I’ve taught for the University of Utah’s Lifelong Learning Program.  I’ve taught for the Institute of Children’s Literature. I’ve taught all kinds of English and writing classes for various private college. I’ve taught workshops on writing for different writing organizations.  Now for the shocking revelation: I can’t teach anyone to write.

It’s true.

Here is what I can do –  I can teach the elements of story.  I can introduce students to various components that go into a good story, like dialog, plot structure, character development, or conflict and resolution.  I can even teach the more subtle parts of story, like thematic development and literary devices such as metaphor and irony.  I can teach students about the marketplace – how to search for agents or editors; how to properly format a manuscript or a cover letter; and even proper business etiquette. And I can even teach students a little bit about the process of writing.  I can give them examples of developing an outline, bringing characters to life, how to incorporate revision throughout the creation process.

But I can’t teach anyone how to write.

So recently, when a friend of a friend approached me and said, “I’ve always wanted to come up with a great story and write it. Do you think you can teach me?” my immediate answer was, “Nope.”

Yeah – that garnered a very strange facial expression from the friend.

The reality is that writers are as much born as they are created.  Learning the elements of story, learning about the business, learning about grammar and punctuation, learning about better word selection or literary elements – these are not the challenge. There are these intangible qualities that make someone want to write. Stories swirl around their brain cells nearly nonstop. Characters speak to them at odd hours of the day and night. They just seem to feel a story and know pretty much how it should read.  Writers don’t ask “what if” and call it good. They ask “what if, and then what if, and then what if after that?”

This is what I can’t teach.  It’s something in the heart, or maybe it’s in the soul, or maybe it’s a little of both.  After this long, I can tell if it’s present or not.  There were students in many of my classes for whom this esoteric quality didn’t exist, and while I could offer them great feedback on all the different elements of their writing, I couldn’t reach into their hearts and flip a switch that made them feel, made them sense the alternate reality they needed to move into in order to bring life to the story.

On the opposite side, Ive met others who I instantly knew had this quality. A young student of mine from ICL named Lyndsie – still in high school when I worked with her – was one example.  It was clear from her first assignment that she could step into the alternate world and bring it back with her to share.  I have no doubt that one day in the not too distant future, she will be a published author. 

When I first met my Jared, I wasn’t sure if he had that indefinable quality or not.  It wasn’t until a month after our first encounter that I became convinced he had that writer’s soul and I agreed to work with him. We have great conversations about talking to our characters, about running around in the alternate realities we create, and about that compelling need to always be working on a story.

Jared has, on more than one occasion, thanked me for what I’ve taught him. I’ve given him some useful information. I’ve helped him to navigate his way around the insane business side of writing, and I’ve offered some guidance on minor issues.  But I didn’t teach him to write – he knew intrinsically how to do that. He is the most natural writer I’ve ever met. I couldn’t teach him any of the things that make him a writer.  If I tried, he – and anyone else I’ve ever taught or worked with – would ed up writing like me, and that’s not acceptable.

There are tons of companies, writers, and teachers who will gladly take a lot of your money and promise that they can teach you to write.  What they can teach you are elements of writing, styles of writing, qualities of writing – but they can’t reach into someone’s heart and flip a switch that creates the alternate reality, creates that other universe from which good writers draw their stories.

That’s the bottom line – I’m a great teacher, and there is a lot that I can teach students, but ultimately, I can’t make anyone into a writer if that switch doesn’t already exist.

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3 thoughts on “I Can’t Teach You to Write

  1. ariel says:

    Wow, Mimi, I am sure there would be shrines to you if you could convince English Lit teachers of this! The first time I locked horns with a teacher about this in defense of another student was when I was made a teachers aide while still in grade school, because there was no ‘advanced learning’ classes and I was getting into trouble being bored. Right off the bat I discovered I had a knack for teaching others. Most of my life I was largely self-taught, and didn’t relate well with other kids, so it was kind of a surprise to me as well as others. The same argument came up again when I was asked to tutor a little boy that never did his R&W assignments. By the second day I had figured out he was severely dyslexic, and didn’t understand how neither his teachers nor parents noticed that. He was a sweet boy but all of the teachers insisted it was a matter of doing the work to defeat his differing ability. It was an argument I would have time and time again all through high school when teachers would attack students that were simply not writers or mathematicians or artists, insisting that if they did the work correctly they would learn how to be! Now I am a certified advocate and I’m able to throw ADA and state codes and federal entitlements at them–but there are always those people that refuse to understand or accept that we are all built to different purposes. With my own children, if there is an area they excel in, I try to shift focus to that and help them get the teachers to do the same. That way what is not intrinsic for them is also not traumatic. Hopefully there will come a day when schools are more flexible and students are aided and encouraged in finding their strengths sooner, so that they are not wandering around unaware of them as adults and asking everyone for advice on careers.

  2. Excellent blog, Mimi. (And you are very very kind to me!)

  3. Linda Bennett says:

    As always, Mimi another very interesting blog. I enjoy reading what you have to say.

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