I Do Like Their Cartoons, Though

Just finished reading an article in the New Yorker, whose contention is that "writing can't be taught." And I have to laugh. Because of all of the great myths about writing, there's none I know to be so profoundly false.

I don't really understand why people go around saying something so patently stupid, unless it's to create a belief in a literary elite to which only the elect can aspire. I mean, think about it. No one would say "painting can't be taught."

Sure, they might contend that you can't make a master painter out of some guy off the street. But they would understand that you can take that guy and put a color wheel in front of him. You can teach him how to gauge perspective, how to identify a good paintbrush, and what the human anatomy looks like from different angles.

And if that guy was in fact not some random joe off the street, but a guy who came to you and said, "I like to paint. Please teach me how to paint better," well, then, he'd have a real shot, wouldn't he? Similarly, the people who enroll in a creative writing program are the ones who can benefit most from learning writing techniques.

Because of course there are techniques. There are techniques for dreaming up ideas, and there are techniques for transmitting those ideas effectively to paper, and there are techniques for engaging the reader's emotions while you do it. And anyone who claims that such techniques don't exist, frankly, isn't a pro.

I can't claim that writing programs are perfect; they're not. If I look back on the really valuable things I've learned, I find that most of them came from my own self-directed study, or from conversation with my fellow writers, or from analysis of movies and books. I've got big problems with the way writing is taught in major institutions, to tell you the truth.

But I absolutely can't abide the idea that "writing can't be taught." It speaks to an elitism and a mysticism that has nothing to do with the craft as I know it. And when people perpetuate this myth, it's a way of saying to new people in the field, "Give up. Don't bother. You're not that guy."

The way I see it, you can be any guy you want to be. It takes effort and practice (you better believe it!) but you can do it. Even if you have to teach yourself.