A recent PBS NewsHour segment on the Iowa Writers' Workshop found the anchor zeroing in on the heart of the story. For as long as the Workshop has existed, he intoned, the question has been asked: Can writing be taught? And the official answer from the Workshop, on the Workshop's very own website, he informed us, was: Not really.
Asked for her views on this pesky question, the Workshop's director, Lan Samantha Chang, agreed. "I sometimes feel if I just brought [students] to the room and fed them some chicken soup," she told PBS, "they would get better anyway. The elements that go into creating a great writer are completely mysterious and no one knows what they are."
I have to say I was a little surprised by the answer. In our book, We Wanted to be Writers, the question underlies most of the discussions throughout, and we devote one full chapter specifically to it. And the consensus, at least among those 29 folks who took part in the conversation, is that yeah, something can be taught, something gets learned.
"An older, experienced writer can be of use to a young, talented writer," says one of my teachers at the Workshop way back when, former workshop student and faculty member, novelist John Irving. "The older writer can at least save the younger writer some time."
"Good writing is contagious," says poet Marvin Bell, who taught at Iowa for 40 years, until his retirement in 2005. "One doesn't learn to hit a baseball by watching others strike out. Hence, the ‘teaching effect' accomplished by good writers who also teach. Hey, that's a useful term: ‘the teaching effect.'"
Or as former Workshop director Paul Engle put it many years ago, when he was asked this same question: "After all, has the painter not always gone to an art school or at least to an established master, for instruction? And the composer, the sculptor, the architect? Then why not the writer?"
But perhaps the question, can writing be taught, is the wrong question to try to answer. In our explorations of the question in We Wanted to be Writers, more often than not the answers got around to the creative process, what parts of that process are teachable, and what aren't. Perhaps different answers would follow if the question were rephrased: Can the creative process be taught? Can it be learned?
"As writers, we're required to write alone," says novelist Sandra Cisneros, one of my classmates at the Workshop. "But I like to use the metaphor of writing being like cutting your own hair; there's only so much you can do yourself, then you need someone to help you with the back. That's what we do at the workshop; we cover each other's backs. So you don't walk out with a bad haircut, so someone doesn't say, damn, where'd you get that bad haircut?"
What became clear in the conversations in our book about how we write, how we adapt to the creative process and adapt it to our needs, is that the process has distinct steps or stages. One thing we learn in a workshop or, sometimes more fitfully, on our own, is to trust that process. And seeing how older, more experienced writers adapt that process to serve their own creative needs can be quite instructive.
Part of that process involves the lonely part, as Sandra points out. This is, perhaps, the mysterious part. No one can teach a young writer to want to write so badly he or she would sit for hours, day after day after friggin' day staring at a computer screen or yellow tablet waiting for inspiration. Chances are if a young writer has come to the point in life that he or she has decided to be a writer and applies to a workshop against common sense and the advice of parents and friends, the drive is a given.
But then there's the public part. We want to be read by others, at least if we want our genius to be recognized by one and all, and that means exposure to the views of others, and that gets us into another part of the creative process, into the realm of that haircut, into the realm of craft.
"Why does this question about whether writing can be taught so perplex the writing schools?" asks Anthony Bukoski, another classmate at the Workshop. Anthony's been teaching creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, Superior, for the past twenty-plus years, and without offering any chicken soup. "What's the mystery? A writer needs the great desire to write, the desire and need to sit (or stand, as was the case with Thomas Wolfe) and write the sentences, the paragraphs, the pages. And I believe this can be taught and learned.
A person, assuming he has a reasonable aptitude for reading and writing, can be taught to look for the odd angle of vision that might lead to the unusual turn of phrase or the imaginative image. This sort of thing can build upon itself, provided the student (or the non-student wanting to be ‘creative') is willing to try out the lessons taught, to try them and to apply them."
Or as another of my classmates, Doug Borsom, put it after watching the same PBS segment: "The last thing these guys want to imply is that craft, which can be taught, is a major part of being a good writer, as opposed to the nebulous, ineffable, artistic analog of phlogiston, which is supposed to mysteriously inhabit refined (pronounced with three syllables) literature, which cannot be taught."
And of course there's that chicken soup, if all else fails.
Causes Eric Olsen Supports
Words Without Borders