Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Can writing be learned?

  If you ask any group of writers, even unpublished writers, if they think writing can be taught, you're likely to get as many answers as the number of writers you query.  They will begin unequivocably with a Yes! (see Thomas Carlyle's "The Everlasting Yea!") or a resounding No! (see Herman Melville's "No! in Thunder").  Having warmed to their yesses or no, they begin, as writers, even unpublished ones, will do to spin, to fabricate, equivocate, temporize, and particularize.  Writing cannot be taught, they argue, but it can be learned.  More bifurcations at this point, more rounds of cognac or beer or wine, for it is the rare writer who does not have some taste for a liquid, be it coffee or even chai tea.

Also, more questions, notable among these, From which sources? and Should writers become lit majors? and Should writers get MFAs?

Your own stand on all these issues has become compromised over the years because you became an editor in order to have an income while you were discovering things about writing you weren't able to find in school or out of it and by elimination, surely working in Publishing would help you discover what it was to be a writer you could live with.  In the process, you felt the bite of irony as you saw individuals find their way into print through your efforts, edited into shape to the point of bringing in good reviews from respectable review sources.  True enough, you'd found your way into print to the point where, one evening while you'd stepped outside a posh saloon in San Francisco to clear your head of the alcohol fumes, you were directd to a newsstand with six of your titles on display.  Your friend knew about your pseudonyms; it was he who identified all six of you.  "How," he asked, "did you do it?"  To which you responded in semi-sober sincerity, "I did it by trying to find myself."  My friend took the name of a personality frequently associated with the godhead.  After the exclamation, he said, "I'd be happy to find just one of myself."

Writing the kinds of books that caused you to have so many pseudonyms led you directly to the first major job in publishing, which in turn led you to New York, which seemed at the time more than it really was, but having been there and done that, you were led into teaching, again to support such things as Olivetti typewriters and Chemex coffee makers and Martell cognac and, yes, more trips to San Francisco and Virginia City, where you had big plans for finding yourself.

To you, editing meant showing others how to do what they already wanted to do, only with greater clarity or conviction, and in optimal format and dramatic order.  You were able to select material that had already been written or, in some cases, assist writers to set forth a previously unarticulated vision.  When you faced students who had not written anything at all or who had written something you would not have supported into the publishing pipeline, you had a crisis of identity.  Teaching meant you had to teach people how to write, particularly if the individuals you taught were already certified bachelors of something or other.  How did you propose to teach them if you did not yet know what really worked for you?  Much less could you guide them to a point where they could begin.

"Simple,"  you said.  "Just sit down and start telling a story."

That was some years ago. 

The answer began where all answers of this nature begin.  Interior.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've often wondered if something was wrong with me for not trying to find myself.

From round about this way, it seems you are a natural teacher/mentor/writer (in no particular order please). Maybe natural isn't the right word, but these roles are not ones I'd doubt.