Can Writing Be Taught? The Debate Rages On.
After over a decade of teaching, I’d say a better question is, can writing be learned?
Can writing be taught? The debate rages on, even as classes and workshops and MFA programs proliferate. These days, there are almost as many writing teachers as there are writers. Writers can’t usually make a living on writing alone, so teaching what they know seems like the natural choice for (slightly) more gainful employment or supplemental income.
Presumably, if you sign up for a writing course, you’d want to learn from the best. Think about that for a second. What kind of person comes to mind? What does “the best” mean to you?
The best writer?
Or the best teacher?
That’s the catch. Knowing how to write is not the same as knowing how to teach. At all. I know from experience.
By third grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I loved to read, and when I learned that I could make up stories of my own, that was it. Early on, the stories mostly had to do with little girls with six or eight middle names who — surprise! — got a horse for their birthday. But as time passed, I learned more, practiced, got more serious, and received major affirmation in my efforts from teachers and parents and friends.
When I started an MFA program in creative nonfiction, the line I gave my parents was that the degree would enable me to teach college. But it was mostly just a line. I wanted to write. The teaching part was incidental.
But then, in the summer of 2006, between my first and second year of grad school, something happened. A friend and I got a grant to teach a writing workshop in New Orleans to teenagers who had survived Hurricane Katrina. We would teach them to write their stories and we would put together an anthology to send to classrooms all over the country.
As the lead teacher, I did not do an awesome job, at least not in terms of lesson plans and feedback. What I did tell them, again and again, was that they’d have a real audience, and that their name would be on the book, not mine.
The essays in the book, which they titled From the Second Line — a reference to the more celebratory second…