Yes; It Can Be Learned; It’s the Wrong Question; Maybe

Almost twenty years and seven books after getting my MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine—and seventy years after the founding of the original, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop—I still get questions about writing programs, as if my having come through one was a flukey detour like a hitch in a Goofy suit at Disneyland, and the institution itself a compound of rumor and scam. Somebody asked about my time at Irvine, with a hint of dubiety, at a reading just the other night. Journalists, critics, would-be students, regular people, they all have their doubts. Do writing workshops have any real value? Are they helpful to young writers? Do they impose standards of style and subject matter, perhaps unwittingly, on their graduates? And, sometimes with a prosecutorial wink: can anybody really be taught how to write? I have answers for these people. Put briefly: yes, yes, I don’t believe so but maybe, and yes.

—Michael Chabon, “Cosmodemonic” (originally published in Details, March 2006; republished by Chabon on his Web site, here [N.B. Link removed; no longer extant])

Can creative writing be taught?

It’s a reasonable question, but no matter how often I’ve been asked, I never know quite what to say. Because if what people mean is: Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for storytelling be taught? then the answer is no. Which may be why the question is so often asked in a skeptical tone implying that, unlike the multiplication tables or the principles of auto mechanics, creativity can’t be transmitted from teacher to student. Imagine Milton enrolling in a graduate program for help with Paradise Lost, or Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don’t believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.

What confuses me is not the sensibleness of the question but the fact that it’s being asked of a writer who has taught writing, on and off, for almost twenty years. What would it say about me, my students, and the hours we’d spent in the classroom if I said that any attempt to teach the writing of fiction was a complete waste of time?

[…] What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.

—Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Well, I think certain things can be taught. I think editing can be taught. Once you’ve written something, it’s very hard to assess what you’ve done. But the first time or the second time or the fourth time that someone says to you, “Look, you don’t need these ten words; one word will do perfectly well,” or, “This whole sentence or this whole paragraph can be cut,” that’s a learning experience, and it’s certainly the most important thing that can be taught in a writing class. I also think you can teach writing through literature. You can say, “Look, James Joyce has written the greatest party scene that has ever been written,” or “Tolstoy has written the most marvelous horse racing scene. And if it happens to be that you want to write a party scene or a horse racing scene, you might want to go look and see how geniuses have done it and take a lesson.” But can talent be taught? I don’t think so.

—Francine Prose, “Reading and Writing” (an interview with Prose), Atlantic Unbound, July 18, 2006

What would happen if we understood the workshop to be not tidy and orderly but large, unpredictable, and uncertain? What if long monologues about German metaphysics could sit right beside arguments from the stylebook of Flannery O’Connor? What if the worst story of the semester were subjected to a half hour of sentence-diagramming exercises? What if no one turned in a story for three weeks, and all you did was sit around talking about the ugliest kid you knew in childhood, or the worst job you ever had? What if all you did in class was assignments? What if you rewrote one sentence all semester? What if everyone got a chance to be the instructor, and everyone got a chance to be the student?

Then, I think, we’d be getting somewhere.

—Rick Moody, “Writers and Mentors,” The Atlantic Monthly, Fiction Issue 2005 (full article requires subscriber login)