Can Creative Writing Be Taught

So the question has always seemed to me to promise its own answer: Of course not.Besides, creative writing has no quantifiable body of information, its outcomes are difficult to objectively measure, it involves too much chatter and sitting around in bars and coffee houses, and anyway, real artists are born artists—people whose genius shouldn’t be corrupted by instruction. Even before I started down the road of becoming a full-time teacher of creative writing in an MFA program, before I’d entered a graduate fiction writing workshop and heard the late Frank Conroy’s staple first-day lecture on Occam’s razor, abject naturalism, the meaning-sense-and-clarity pyramid, and a long rant that included chalkboard diagrams with stick figures, coal bins, and something reminiscent of broken rainbows, during which he adamantly debunked not Transmission Model Learning but rather Transmission Model Reading (“It’s a dance!

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It requires a long apprenticeship before you can expect to sell your work.And as a bonus, I learn just as much from editing as I do from being edited, because quite often the issues I see in other people’s manuscripts also pop up in my own.I don’t think there will ever come a time where I’ll be able to say I know all there is to know about writing.Some of us are better or worse at this than others.Frankly, I don’t think I ever got to be very good at it.If I was a gambler, I’d put my money on an average writer who knows how to work hard over someone who is supposedly talented but doesn’t know how to apply the AOC rule (Ass On Chair). It makes you think you can get it right the first time—and sure, that might work for a little while. And if you haven’t learned how to work hard, I would argue that you didn’t learn the most important aspect of writing.But sooner or later every writer encounters a manuscript that threatens to kill them. Working hard means being open to revision, being humble enough to accept criticism, and being willing to keep working until you get it right. At a basic level, we all know how to do it, which makes it unlike learning how to play the violin or becoming a master carpenter.There’s actually a name for this approach: Transmission Model Learning, wherein the teacher transmits information to a passive student, who memorizes and regurgitates the material until it is learned.While it used to be the dominant approach to teaching, no one really believes in Transmission Model Learning anymore, certainly not in the arts and humanities.Why do some of them have willpower and discipline and others don’t? In order to answer, we have to make the original question active by returning to its true subject and object—student and teacher.All my students, if they applied themselves, could absolutely improve, but the ones with discipline and talent, the ones who practiced, could go faster and further. Anyone who’s sat in an effective workshop can tell you that.


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