Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Great writers - nature or nurture?

Are writers taught or are they made? Is the ability to produce a great novel somehow derived from the genes, or is it a craft that can be learned through effort and good teaching?

Like all such questions, this is a false dichotomy. For a truly great writer, innate ability is surely needed. But learning the craft also. I have been privileged to witness so many students developing their capacity to write beautiful, powerful prose that I am convinced of the importance of good teaching in this process and that the innate ability is not as rare as some people claim.

There is a problem however. I have seen people postpone writing their first novel because they feel they are not quite ready. Instead, they do another writing course. And another. And another. Courses become a thing to do INSTEAD of writing.

You can't learn to write novels without writing novels.

Last night I gave the first in a series of classes designed to combat that problem. The deal is this: each student works on their novel through the week. This is the process from which they will derive most of their learning. And on Tuesday evening we all come together to talk about their progress, share samples of their work, answer problems that have arisen, give suggestions and encouragement. Each class will be 50% taught and 50% manuscript workshop.

With 14 students, the class is full. We couldn't fit anyone else in the room. I discovered that, curiously, there are 13 female participants and only one male. (Writing courses do typically attract more women than men, but this is more asymmetric than usual).

Everyone seemed focused on the prospect of writing and I sensed a creative excitement in the air. Novel writing gives that - a sense of excitement. It is a journey into the unknown. I'm really looking forward to the rest of this course.


Paul said...

I'm not sure that writing can be taught, but I do think it can be learned. If nothing more, a writing teacher can give students a reason to write. The students need to be compelled to write (rather than just "wait for the muse" or "prepare to write").

Sarah said...

I definately think people learn to write novel from writing and reading novels, though classes can help you along the way. I am someone who always used to put writing a novel off because I knew it wouldn't be good, I kept thinking I'd learn a bit more then give it a try. That was until someone pointed out artists in all mediums made terrible art once, and that this is an essential part of learning to make good art. If you can see it isn't very good that means you have an eye for what good art is like, and you'll get to this level in the end.

I'm over half way through my first novel now. : )

Wayne Kelly said...

Good post, Rod. Like most things in life, I think there are those that are more naturally gifted and have an instinctual sense of how to tell a good story.

However, as with any worthwhile activity, the more time and effort you put in to the craft (and I do believe Writing is a craft) the more you will improve.

Good critique and encouragement is vital for the developing writer - and, regardless of experience, there is always something new to learn.

Good luck with running the course.

Kelly's Eye - Writing, Music, Life

Paul said...