As the year comes to a close, I was thinking of the age-old debate about whether or not you can teach someone to write.
Is an artist born an artist, or can anyone learn how to be one?
Human Beings are Made to Learn
I’ve been a teacher for most of my life. From kindergarten on I was often asked by my teachers to help tutor students who were having trouble in class. I took to it naturally. Teaching came easily to me, and I enjoyed helping others to understand new things.
No surprise that I planned to be a teacher when I grew up. Later in life, I was drawn to music, and it became my focus when I went to college. When I realized I could actually teach students more effectively through private lessons than I ever could in public schools, I decided to go in a different direction.
I worked odd jobs for awhile, and taught private music lessons on the side. Then I started writing for fun during my leisure time. Soon I was submitting stories, and within three years, I’d gotten my first one published. I landed a job as a copywriter soon after that, and my new career took off.
I continued to teach privately in my off hours, though, and do so to this day. I’ve seen students of all abilities come through my door to learn how to play the piano, the French horn, and a variety of other instruments. I’ve also tutored special needs kids and those diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
My experience has shown me that if students want to learn, you can teach them just about anything. Human beings are primed to learn. It’s how we’re made. Some people may learn differently than others, but if you find the right key, you can unlock understanding in most any mind.
After over 25 years of teaching, I’ve yet to find one student that I couldn’t help to learn and succeed.
Does that mean I think you can teach someone everything about writing?
Plot. Characterization. Pacing. Setting. Dialogue.
All of these can be taught. I ought to know. I’ve learned a lot about them over the years, and I continue to seek out educational opportunities. That’s one nice thing about being a writer—you never stop learning.
But there are three other things about writing you can’t teach. Students have to either feel it, or learn it, on their own.
1. The desire to write.
I have always enjoyed writing. I used to keep a diary as a kid, and I loved it when teachers announced essay tests, as I knew I would do well on those.
I didn’t think of writing as a career for myself, however, until I was in my early twenties. Then, for some reason I still can’t quite explain, I felt the desire to write stories. I was compelled to get a word processor (shows you how long ago that was!) and started using it right away.
I began with children’s stories, then moved to short stories, and then into novels. When I got the copywriting job, I wrote a lot of nonfiction, too. As a full-time freelance writer, I continue to do a lot of that today.
Once the writing bug took hold of me, it never let go.
I’ve since heard similar stories from other writers—that writing was like a compulsion, something they were drawn to, something that they couldn’t not do.
I’ve also talked to people who hate to write, and I know that no one could ever teach them to want to write. That desire comes from somewhere within, and it’s a pure desire, like wanting to have children, or wanting to volunteer, or wanting to paint or make music or find a cure for cancer.
Some people feel that desire to write late in life, and others are born with it. Either way, it appears on it’s own. It can’t be taught. You either feel it, or you don’t.
2. The love of writing.
Not everyone who feels compelled to write ends up loving it.
Many do, but again, this isn’t something you can teach.
Writing is hard, as anyone who’s tried it will tell you. Some people give it a go, in the hopes of penning a bestseller or making some extra money on the side, but when they see how difficult it is, they give up.
Others find out only after awhile how much time, energy, and focus it takes. Writing means spending a lot of time alone—time you could be spending time with other people or doing a number of other things that might be more fun.
If you hope to find an audience for your work, you must commit to even more time. In today’s world, authors must do the lion’s share of the marketing themselves.
In other words, the whole thing ends up being a lot more complicated and time-consuming than most of us imagine when we start.
Those of us who stick with it? It’s because we love it. We love the process. We love the creation. We love getting to know the characters in our heads and seeing how their stories play out on the page.
To people who don’t get it, it looks like we’re crazy, and no amount of teaching is going to change their minds.
To writers, there’s a magic that happens in the process. We know it intimately, and despite all the difficulties, we go back again and again just to re-experience it.
3. The meaning of writing.
What does writing mean to you? Ask ten authors and you’ll get ten different answers.
When we start out, writing may be a mode of personal expression, a way to share the stories inside us. At other times, writing can be an occupation or a hobby. It may be a way to encourage change, or to develop as individuals.
Over the years, writing for me has been a fantasy, a dream, a discipline, an education, a way to pay the bills, a way to grow, a way to explore the unanswered questions, and perhaps above all, a solace.
I imagine in the coming years, writing will be many other things, as well. What writing means to any individual author is not something that can be taught—it’s something that must be discovered over the course of a lifetime.
If you want to write, don’t let anyone stop you. But if you think you may be missing any of these three characteristics, think again.
After all, writing’s not for everyone.
I love this quote by Junot Diaz, author of the short story collection This is How You Lose Her: