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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I Just Gotta Get Out of This Prison Cell

I learned something from every writing course I ever took, even the ones where I felt invisible and worthless.  I was an amoeba, a sponge, sea kelp dancing with the sun in my eyes. I was lost, private, totally unprepared. Some things stayed with me to this day, much has fallen away. But brick by brick I came to have my own opinions, my own responses or began to understand what they meant and developed a language with which to communicate about writing. And of course the characters along the way, the pill heads and booze hounds, the brittle and fragrant, the long winded and the Delphic Oracle. There were faux British and mental breakdowns in progress. The man I had a crush on was in the closet. The girl I befriended disappeared.

Did you get an MFA? DId you take a writing workshop? Go to Breadloaf or other conferences? Do you have a writers’ group where you critique each other’s work? Do work with an editor, a coach, a writing instructor? If so, what did you learn? Did you improve? Was it worth it? Would you do it again if you could afford the time/money? I guess what I’m asking is: can writing be taught?

65 Responses

  1. Through my own college experiences and teaching experiences, I think that writing can be taught to those with a natural talent or knack for it…and then as a way to develop a talent.

    I had a prof in graduate school who made it his mission to smother my bad habit of using passive voice. He made me write a few of my short analytical papers without using any “to be” verbs, among other things. I had a nervous breakdown that semester…but it was the best writing instruction I’ve ever received in two degrees worth of classes!

  2. I think you can learn mechanics and a lot of what not to do. Or maybe that is all I paid attention to. Like don’t ever end a sentence with a preposition.

    I think the story comes from inside you. Like barf.

    • “Like barf.” That’s how my best ones come. I was hoping to keep it a secret, but I guess I’m not the only one.

      The trick is how to trick out the barf in a comely costume, and perfumed. That’s where a teacher can help. Finishing school, you know? How many books can I balance on my head while I cross the room?

  3. It’s like surgery. You cut open a body, reach for the spleen and pull out the bladder, stick it back in and pull out the small intestine. You throw up a little, sweat, hyperventilate. Next time, you’re better. Someone gives you advice, a tip, a rule of thumb, a set of standards, a kick in the pants. You practice on more bodies. You let yourself feel sick and wild and dangerous and stupid. You don’t get much sleep and you self-medicate with something, anything. You know you’re a surgeon, you always wanted to be a surgeon, but hardly anyone makes it. But you keep at it. People tell you you have something, you could be good at this. But you have to be tough, soak up everything, cut open more bodies.

    I don’t know if this is true but I watch a lot of Grey’s Anatomy.

    • I’m laughing here this morning! I’ve worked in a lot of OR’s and yes, this is (unfortunately) true…

  4. did all of the above MFA, writing conferences, some twice (Taos, Tinker Mtn, Tinhouse), writing group for 8yrs running, and I’m still not convinced writing can be taught; what a writing community (including this one) has done for me is keep me going…that is the hardest part, rolling the boulder up the hill day after day, keeping the faith when the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you…knowing there are other people out there stringing words together same as you makes it feel less like folly –

    • Phew! Glad someone said it! As an English and Composition teacher, I fear allowing myself to completely think (or maybe just completely admit) that writing can’t be taught. The state laws have set up whole tests on writing and it’s a losing battle…but how bad does that sound coming from someone whose job it is to win that battle?

  5. The writing workshops I took before I dropped out of college taught me a great lesson. Kill your ego.

    I know some people who jumped straight to self publishing on Amazon without bothering to query because they were too afraid of rejection. They found it nonetheless. Those workshops taught me how to take harsh criticism. The first time I heard a negative comment it felt like someone had just said my baby was ugly and I should throw it over a cliff as would a Spartan. But I took every workshop and now I look back on those courses fondly.

    Otherwise college sucked something awful.

    • The hardest thing is to not take it personally, and how the hell do you do that? The honest critics are the ones to listen to, but that can be pretty harsh. Kill the ego. Good advice.

      • Jim Butcher. Hardcover. Tumble table. Wal mart.

      • It *is* personal. What could be more personal?

        If we didn’t have egos why would we bother? The problem isn’t feeling bad when we lose, the problem is losing. Harness the loathing and make vindictiveness a battle-cry. Is there any motivation other than proving the bastards wrong?

      • Yeah, creating something and not worrying what the bastards think is pretty strong motivation. And that requires something other than ego, something that eludes my acquaintance. But I know what comes next: the bastards control the pursestrings.

      • Are you thinking of pride, Mike? I think pride gets a bad rap cause of Jane Austen’s book and whoever it was that decided it was a deadly sin. It’s semantics, I guess, but I consider ego to be the negative extension of pride. I’m proud of everything I write, but unless I’m cool with an audience of one I gotta give credence to more than the little editor in my brain.

  6. Yes on the MFA, workshops and conferences. I don’t know if you can teach someone to write, but I know what you can’t teach: a work ethic. There are very few willing to take this long haul.

    The classmate I most remember (and there have been some great characters!) is the elderly woman who brought her little chihuahua, in a purse/carrier, to a night class. People gave her a lot of shit about the dog, and you could tell she and the professor (a young T.A.) did not get along. When she submitted her last piece for workshop it was just a 3 page single-spaced story about a class where a woman brings her dog. It was painful and hilarious. She never came back.

  7. You can teach competence, which is absolutely a worthwhile thing. But you can’t teach brilliance, and thank God for that.

  8. I studied history instead of literature and steered clear of writing courses – I had my views altered enough by professors as it was. Perhaps I should have investigated? as I agree that a writing ethic can be learned, as can a way to negotiate the submission and revision processes. But I think it would be hard to enlarge the suffering, or seek pats on the back.

  9. I’m with Chris: writing courses teach you to take criticism and learn from your mistakes. Taking an MA (In England) made me more critical of my writing, more willing to work on rewriting, take editing advice and got me an agent. I don’t think you can teach storytelling talent, but you can certainly teach better craft, without which no-one’s ever going to read your stories.

    • You’re right on, Rebecca. Anyone can hammer something together, but it takes a finish carpenter to make it look good and a craftsperson to add detail and depth.

    • So true, Reb and Mike. What I was trying to say above (and failed) is that you can teach the “work” part of it, can teach someone how to dig in and of the myriad ways to shape a story. Thanks for saying it better!!

  10. Trust was my issue. This is not unusual in young or otherwise inexperience writers. I didn’t trust anyone to teach me anything without fucking up my voice, or some such nonsense. I thought I could learn what I needed to learn about writing simply through doing it.

    Some can and some can’t. My last year of high school there was talk of a creative writing class being offered, but not enough students were interested so it didn’t happen. This was the mid-70s in West Texas. When I returned to school in the early 80s, still in West Texas and now at a state university, just about the last thing I wanted to be was an English major. I knew I was a writer and returned to school to become better at it, but decided to take an indirect approach and majored in philosophy.

    This was before the great explosion in writing programs in this country. I sat in on a couple creative writing courses at a couple state universities in the Southwest during the 80s and was not impressed. It didn’t seem the professors knew how to teach the subject, however it was that might be done.

    As I was getting my degree in philosophy and in the five years afterwards, I wrote about two or three dozen short stories and three or four novels. But they weren’t any good. It turns out writing can be taught. Technical stuff. How to pick stories apart and put them together. Since I was not an English major and had done no more that sit in on a couple classes and had trust issues and the certainty of the ignorant, I hadn’t acquainted myself with Forster’s Aspects or Gardner’s works.

    One of those novels that wasn’t good enough to be published got me something else. I’ve probably told this story on your blog before but I don’t mind telling it again. In 1990 I got invited to NYC to study with Gordon Lish. I’d barely heard of Gordon Lish. Seems I was the last virgin in the land. His classes and the NYC experience changed my writing and changed my life. It turned out that, boy and howdy, writing could be taught after all. Life could, too.

    I returned to New Mexico and wrote. And wrote. And wrote. Sobbed like a child when Gordon first accepted one of my pieces (didn’t get published–The Quarterly went bust). Kept writing. Kept writing. Got stuck. Needed something more. An agent said, Take some MFA workshops.

    I thought, if I’m going to take workshops, while not go for the whole enchilada and get an MFA? Might open some doors for me. The state university right here in my town has an MFA program (don’t they all these days?). I signed up for some courses and applied for admission. I took the courses but my application was denied. The incoming program head taught one of the courses I took and threatened early on to kick me out. She said she wouldn’t have “any of that New York stuff” in her fiction workshop, though she had attended Hunter College and Sarah Lawrence. She told me later that I shouldn’t take it hard that my application was denied. She said the program would take from my writing the very things that made it good. That’s a smooth line and maybe it’s true. She said there were probably other programs where I might be a better fit. Maybe so. But I was out of money and out of time.

    Yeah, I was disappointed. Yeah, I wanted that MFA. Thought it might open some doors. It did, though not the ones I thought. It got me unstuck. I learned some things about writing and writers. And the book I proposed to write as my thesis was High Street. As you know, I went ahead and wrote it, and it got published.

    But no Breadloaf for me. No Iowa. No Stanford. I’m still out of money and I’m still out of time. No writer’s group. No editor, coach, or instructor (Gordon was a very hard act to follow, though I later learned some things from Anthony Robbins that were quite helpful). I’ve gone on way too long here and what I’ve learned could fill pages, and has (my own website has my Gordon Lish notes). I’ve learned there are a lot of different kinds of writers and a lot of different ways to do it, all of which work. And I’ve learned that a lot of how to make it work can be taught and can be learned, both about how to put words on the page and how to live the writer’s life.

  11. I don’t think writing can be taught flat out, like math, yet I routinely see people improve in a writing program, especially when encouraged to try something new and not worry about publication. There is a myth about what is and isn’t acceptable to a workshop. Students will bring up a great but odd story and say, “oh that would never have made it through workshop.” I teach why it would–because it is all of a piece. The idea of getting how a thing hangs together, a sense of how to effect that–a workshop can help with that.

  12. No, writing CANNOT BE TAUGHT by writing classes.

    Yes, writing CAN BE TAUGHT by reading classes (ie. how to read literature analytically).

    However, I believe writing can be INSPIRED by surrounding oneself with a community of writers.

    That’s what you’re up to, Betsy, and whether or not any of us will be able to see the results of this community doesn’t matter. I feel it, and I’d bet my next grandchild on the fact that someone among us — perhaps the person who never leaves a comment — is going to become a truly fine writer.

    I’m proud to be part of that.

  13. I believe that rules can be taught. Voice–no. When I’ve gone to readings by my favorite authors (or listened to interviews) there they are–the voices from the books I love. Trying to teach a writer to have a better voice is like trying to teach someone to be funny. All you’re gonna get is a knock-knock joke.

    • Even a voice coach, music- wise, can only try to help you use what you have.

      • Exactly. If you already have writing talent to build on, then writing is teachable because they are simply helping you use what you already have. Believe me, as a writer, I agree with this…and yet the teacher in me still wonders…

        Without natural ability, people can simply write presentable piece at best. As a teacher, I have very few students about whom I can say I actually teach real writing. I have a vast majority that I am helping limp through. It’s frustrating, but maybe it goes back to the work ethic someone previously mentioned.

        Does it depend on how we define writing? If I have a student who could barely do anything, but after a year can write a paragraph, have I taught them writing?

  14. So pregnant with my second daughter I couldn’t fit in one of those chair-attached-to-desks, the teacher of the writing course, the op-ed editor of a local paper, found me a real chair in the high school library. I was taking ‘How to get published’ in adult ed.

    Loved the course, had baby, wrote when babies napped, (two under three years old), first byline when youngest was eight months old. She’s twenty-five now.

    Back then almost everything I wrote was accepted and ran. Went back to work full time, life became chaos. Stopped writing until the nest thinned out and eventually emptied. Took two more adult-ed classes, joined writing group, replaced eating, socializing, watching husband doze on couch, doing laundry, cleaning and fucking, (well maybe not fucking) with writing; blah, blah, blah. I don’t have a MFA I have an AAss; Adult-ed Associates. Hahahaha.

    Can writing be taught, hell yes, but can it be learned?

    November 25, 1963, a few days after JFK was assassinated a classmate of mine, and my English teacher told me that the short essay I wrote about our president being murdered was ‘overwhelmingly beautiful’. I remember their words but can’t remember a damn thing I wrote. That day I became a writer, that day I learned I was a writer. It’s both a blessing and a curse. My AASS is ongoing.

  15. Early on my parents literally pushed me into the sciences, so little Harriet-the Spy with her notebook & diaries was forced underground. A bit later, real life kicked in, but after that came some adult freedom to take classes, workshops, etc. I live in a great city of writers, so I’m lucky.

    Yay Harriet! You busted out, girl!

  16. Some things can be taught, yes; definitely. I’ve gone to single day conferences and submitted material to be critiqued for a fee. The only writer’s groups I’ve tried have been more about ego than constructive criticism, so I’m skepical. I’m hesitant about the big conferences because it seems so much is about making contacts and I’m seriously undernourished at the social graces buffet. But I should give it a try. Mostly it’s been worth it and beneficial, but what excites me is the act of sitting down and writing, pleasantly surprised or scared and appalled or stoned and reflective at the words spilled out on the page. This old dog can still learn some new tricks, but mostly ones that can be experienced instead of taught.

  17. I took one required writing class in college and was told I had promise, but I should ditch the genres and try literary fiction.

    About ten years later, I went to the Iowa Summer Writing Program for a week and was told that I should underline where I was italicizing (or possibly vice-versa) and that my critiquing partners didn’t read my chapters because they didn’t read that genre so why bother. But the instructor told me that writing for entertainment was a noble calling, I should keep writing—and that I should lose the first chapter.

    Three years after that, I returned to the ISWP for a week with a different WIP and was told that my intended-dystopian novel was the funniest thing the group had read. The instructor told me I had definite promise, I should keep writing—and that I should lose the first two chapters.

    Did any of this teach me how to write? Mmmm, dunno. It showed me how my stuff is read by other people, which is important. And that writing exercises are fun. And that it’s okay to write what I want and to keep writing and that the sharp dismissals of other people’s egos and editing out chunks of my deathless prose won’t actually kill me.

    That’s not bad.

  18. Yes, writing can be taught–like religion. The history, the techniques, the basis for the art can be taught. The fervor, the commitment, the obsession must come from within.

  19. I teach writing to middle school students so I must believe it can be taught. Technique, surely, can be taught, but it takes patience, a lot of red ink, and more time than most schools deem appropriate or worthy.

    By the time my students shuffle off to high school, some still struggle with the concept of a thesis, some have learned how to string together a cohesive argument, but a precious few have begun to develop voice. *Those* are the writers. The others will become proficient, maybe even polished, by the time they have something to say to the world, but not all will be Writers.

    This, I believe.

  20. It can be taught. The question is, do you want to learn?

  21. MFA? No – although I have thought about that a time or two.

    Writing workshop? No. Conferences? No. Why not yes to these? I’ve read and heard from other writers there are too many instances of petty jealousy in those environments. I’m sure there are many who attend that would offer up critiques/wisdom/advice without wrapping it in green, but we all know we have enough insecurities to deal with – why pay money when we can beat ourselves up?

    I’ve mentioned an editor before, so yes, I work with an editor. What I’ve learned is to cut, cut, cut. (Kill/murder your darlings)

    Others in this thread have talked about “voice,” and I agree…having a voice is key. I too, don’t believe it’s something that can be taught.

  22. Great question, and I don’t think I have an answer, but I did go to graduate school in order to write my debut novel, BABY GRAND, or at least start to write it. I knew that it would be important for me to be around other writers and in a creative environment — and, hey, if I could get a degree as well it was a bonus. However, did they TEACH me how to write there? Not really. One of my colleagues asked me recently if I “learned” how to write thrillers there? No. Reading thrillers taught me how to write them. But were there helpful tips and good advice in school? Absolutely. A nurturing environment in which I could grow and thrive as a writer. Yes. Was it the kick in the butt I needed? Hell, yes. And that was enough for me.

  23. I love this question! I don’t think writing can’t be taught. It’s an affliction you are born with, but only grows if your environment or family lacks certain things and has a ton of other things. (We all know what those things are, in our own back stories.) I am crazy and that’s why I write. To stay sane. Nothing makes me crazier than not writing.

    Best group ever was led by a Freudian analyst/novelist on the Upper West Side — its focus was the psychodynamics of creative block. There I learned that writing can’t be taught, but you can learn certain strategies to get unstuck. And writing is a constant process of getting stuck and getting free…

    • Oh Ella I do love your response. Damn me and my stinking teacher complex. The teacher in my wrestles with the writer in me. This question is the perfect example of why. (see my comment under Bonnie’s reply for more detail – I’d even love to hear your take on my conflicting sides of writing)

    • I loved your post, too – “I’m crazy and that’s why I write. To stay sane.” You gave me some really excellent perspective today. Thanks.

    • Mystifying bullshit. Writing is the constant process of putting words on a page. Writing’s an affliction just like hanging drywall is an affliction. They’re no fun. Being stuck has nothing to do with words or wallboard, we’re stuck because we have crappy jobs and crappier motivation. Nobody ever gets masturbator’s block.

      • Be wary of those Delaying Rings you can place around the base of your penis.

      • Your disheartening words mystify me today. I like putting words on the page. Sometime’s it’s even fun. I hate hanging drywall & plastering… I’ve done both. And I don’t get stuck doing either. Lucky me, I guess.

    • Tell me them–the strategies. Please.

      • write.
        just write.
        sit yourself down and write.
        that’s the strategy.
        that’s the tactic.
        that’s the practice.
        just write.
        write till your fingers bleed.
        write with the blood.
        just write.
        that’s it.
        talk to your page.
        talk to your reader
        (your reader’s in your page
        in your mind
        there’s your reader
        everyone and everywhere
        and no one and nowhere).
        just write.
        that’s right.

  24. Well, you are all a part of the literary world and I am not. Yesterday I dead headed my Gerberas and my new row of Barberry that was a Mother’s day gift, mind you, has a fatal fungus, whole fucking row. And many of you have, literarily jumped down my throat before, but I think that you just better believe that a pro with enviable creds can tell you they love your voice and to read you is a joy, but YOU still have to decide what to do with it, what to SAY with it.

    • Hey, I’m a simple English teacher, teaching in a hick town, who happens to also be a most avid reader from the time I could read. I have no writing yet to make a claim to fame besides the praises of a few college profs and my 8th grade English teacher who started it all. You are as much a part of the literary world as I am!

    • If you’re not in the lit. world, then neither am I. Yesterday, I dead-headed the snapdragons on my little fire escape garden. The morning glories look good, too, crawling up the rusted railing. The basil & rosemary… not so much.

      Honestly, I think we’re all in this together. And we all seem to jump down each others’ throats on occasion. Hopefully, it’s not a lethal throat-cutting, just a sting.

  25. I suppose the mechanics/techniques can be taught for fiction writing. But I suspect you either have the goods or you don’t.
    Some are just gifted from the git-go (God bless’em for that, it’s innate). Others must work like a Trojan, tweaking their skills over time, figuratively sweating blood along the way.They have the goods, they just have to sharpen them over time.
    Much can be said for passion and persistence and no doubt that can get you far, but in the end the truly successful may simply be those who have the good fortune of being born with the writing gene. Nature or nurture? Nature may be the final determination here.

  26. I’ve had no formal training other than a couple of required writing classes in school and it shows in how much I don’t know about literature. From the outside, an MFA appears to encourage reading a variety of works as much as it encourages writing. Exposure can be a powerful teaching tool. The human interaction part of formal courses appears to be mixed bag of helpful and unhelpful experiences.

    • The reading was the best part; the being required to be exposed to works I otherwise might not have made time for; and the being required to write and speak intelligently about those works.

  27. I think writing can be taught–it’s a discipline that takes practice and hard work and more than anything revision. Craft is craft and I don’t think there’s anything magical about stringing words together, that some of us have a gift or talent for. It’s a subjective world out there with an incredibly short attention span. Critical thinking skills can be taught and in a sense those can be a substitute for imagination if they are used well enough in a world sorely lacking in their use.

    Can imagination be taught seems a more apt question. It can be nurtured and it can be shaped and it can be crushed. But taught? I have no fucking idea. I’m not sure how it is even identified. Do I have it? that’s the question I ask myself. But I have no real answer.

    What I learned from the MFA program I went to was not how to write but how to listen. That for me it was a matter of trying all feedback, as one would in a search for the perfect pair of jeans, to the point of exhaustion. And then identifying the flaw of each pair, or critique. Thusly I learned to hear my voice, to sharpen it and rid it of at least the most jarring clanks and purpleries.

    I loved the MFA program I was in–it was a while ago now–in it’s infancy and the writers who taught were amazingly talented teachers. But I worry about the system. As a bookseller I feel it is a bit of a monster that feeds itself. But then it just feels a bit fucked up to criticize my crib, you know…

    As for writing conferences writers@work in Utah. I was a finalist for their fellowship twice went both years, then another year without that. Was kind of magical actually. The revision of a new piece that I did from the last time I attended landed me my eighteenth finalist/semifinalist commendation, for the arts & letters nonfiction award. I’d say that feeling of community is magical wherever it is.

    • And editors–I LOVE editors! Wish more of them picked me. Seriously though, the ones I’ve worked with have made incredible changes that I would have never seen that have improved what I’ve done immeasurably. I love the editorial relationship, it’s crucial.

      • Ruth, you touched on two points where I would like to chime in in agreement:

        1) The importance of learning “not how to write but how to listen.” I learned that in NYC, forgot it, learned it again at UNM, forgot it again, and was here reminded of it again by you.

        2) The priceless value of editors. There are several I’ve worked with who’ve made suggestions and edits ranging from helpful through crucial to mind-boggling. I’d like to give particular shout-outs to Christopher Chambers and Diane Williams. There are others whose names I don’t have at hand (I’m at my day job, taking a break from drafting a subpoena), but they’ve all been important to my work, such that it could be said that in one measure or another, it is their work now, too–though I retain full responsibility (and copyright).

  28. I’ve read most of the posts today and one theme keeps poking me in the eye.
    Okay…so you’re talented, educated, have a great idea which you execute flawlessly…so what. And then again, your writing is pedestrian but sexually moist, and you’re a hit.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that the great philosopher, Doris Day is right. Que sera sera, what will be will f-in be. Smarts, luck, timing and fortitude; what the hell else do you need?

  29. I started out with a degree in journalism. I learned to tell a story clearly and precisely. I learned to write tight sentences and keep paragraphs short and to the point. I learned to banish adverbs and nasty adjectives, and use unpretentious words. I learned to write in any environment (blaring TVs, barking dogs, thunder storms, wailing kids do not faze me.) I learned to write under pressure and meet deadlines. I learned to spell. (Sort of – I give thanks to God Almighty everyday for spell check.) I also learned to type. I learned to interview, observe, take notes and listen, all valuable skills that I now apply to fiction. And, while editor of a small town newspaper, I learned how to take criticism. Harsh, vicious criticism … I am still scarred, but I survived it. Hell, after that experience, nothing fazes me. Bring it on!

    So, yeah, I do think you can teach writing. Up to a point. I think you can teach bad writers to be better, good writers to be even better still, and talented writers to be great. What you can’t teach is teach drive, ambition and desire, and you can’t give someone an imagination when all they have in their heads is sawdust. Amen and halleluiah. I love preaching to the choir!!

  30. This was featured on APOD today, and fits in here, right on topic:

  31. As far as craft goes, I think I learned it by learning to read. I learned to read in a double-wide mobile home in a California trailer park, sitting on the lap of my mother. She never finished high school, but bought piles of kiddie books, a Little Golden Picture Dictionary, and read to me constantly when I was little. For some reason I got hooked on the The Cat in the Hat, begging her to read it again and again, and she obliged uncomplainingly. She would point at each word as her rough, halting, New York-rough voice (further coarsened by her two-pack habit and all the screaming she’d done at her three previous husbands, my stepfather, and me and my sister), artlessly enunciated each word. She read it to me so many times I finally memorized it, but I didn’t let on that I had. I told her that I could read it by myself. Doubtful at first, she promised me she’d give me a Kennedy fifty-cent piece if I could get through the whole thing without a mistake. So I recited from memory, pointing at each word, and proudly turning the pages at just the right point in the narrative. Having the pictures there helped. And I did get that half-dollar, which was big money for a three-year-old back in 1966.

    I kinda went free-range on this topic over at my blog, if anyone’s interested in dropping by.

  32. This place is neat.

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