Hello, everyone. I’m not planning to do a lot of blogging today since I had a hell of a run on Friday and Saturday. Also, I’m trying to revamp the first few chapters of “The Notice” taking into account the advice I received this weekend, while also making headway on “The Last Cup” and finishing up “Naked in Korea”. In other words, I’ve got quite a bit on my plate. However, I did want to adjust one thing that came up at the conference that I couldn’t help but think about last time during the brief moments when I wasn’t fuming over how awful most of “Prometheus” was.
A recurring question that comes up at almost any writers conference or on any writing website is whether or not writing is a thing that can be instructed. Can it be learned? As I mentioned, some of the speakers at the conference I attended in Lexington, KY left me wanting because I didn’t feel like their advice on writing was especially helpful. Other people seemed equally dejected after a few of the lectures. Then I began wondering what they possibly could have said that would have been truly useful.
Some people will tell you that writing, like painting, is an art that simply cannot be taught. We cannot be instructed on how to feel with the sort of poignancy that defines all great art. We cannot be taught how to observe the world in a way that is different or unexpected. We cannot learn to be brilliantly insightful or discover from someone else how to unveil new truths in the world that were always there. To me, the most we can hope for is that someone will tell us the buried treasure is out there, point us in the right direction, and send us off with a shovel. Unfortunately, the map is up to us and some people have brilliantly detailed maps while others just have a napkin with a vague “X” on it.
That said, writing is a skill that can be improved. I don’t think this can be argued. Therefore, if a skill can be improved then it should be able to be learned in the first place. Sounds logical, right? What I would reinforce, however, is that it is not a skill that can be learned quickly.
I have been evolving as a writer since I was 10-years-old. My evolution started with the first sci-fi short story I wrote at that age and which won a Young Author’s award when I was in elementary school and I kept evolving right up to my Governor’s Cup essay that won Third Place in a state-wide competition. My evolution continued through the mountains of terrible poetry I wrote in middle school and high school—I penned one almost every single night—and kept going through every paper I wrote at Centre College from “C+” grades that I totally phoned in to “A+” breakthroughs that I slaved over for weeks. In the years since Centre, my evolution has continued with a 300,000-word fantasy novel that will never see the light of day in that form for obvious reasons to a much more toned, trimmed, and nuanced book about Bosnia to the projects through which I am currently evolving. The evolution never stops and I’m not even certain that it becomes all that faster, but it does last one’s entire life.
And when I wasn’t evolving through the things I was writing, I was evolving through the books I was reading. I evolved the first time I read “The Oddkins” and I evolved the first time I read “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings”. I devolved with “Goosebumps” for a period, but evolved once more with “Flowers for Algernon” and “Death Be Not Proud” and “Black Like Me” and “Frankenstein”. I kept evolving through Philip K. Dick and Barbara Kingsolver and Kurt Vonnegut and, more recently, Aldous Huxley. You are only as good as the books you read and if you are not reading good books, you almost certainly will be unable to write your own.
So, yes, I believe one can be taught to write well. One can even teach oneself to write well and, in truth, this might be the easier of the two. It is simpler to refine one’s art than to teach someone else to do it, I believe. However, that process has to start young if one wants to reach lofty goals. I was astonished by the number of individuals at our conference who were in their 60s or 70s and only just learning how to write. I could not conceive of the steepness of that curve. It has taken me almost fifteen years to start producing what I consider to be good work. That some of the people I met in Lexington were only just beginning their endeavors and admitted to have never really done much writing before was truly shocking to me. I imagine those who will succeed must always have had something innate in them that would enable them to write—that unique voice or view of the world, for example—but others seem doomed to fail and I didn’t quite know what to say to them when they asked my opinion.
Failure is something I can accept only because I so enjoy the writing itself. I could only hope that they feel the same way about their projects. Some say writing can’t be learned, but I challenge you to do defy those expectations. What I can tell you with absolute certainty, however, is that it won’t be easy. It’s going to take a long time and more effort than 99% of people would be willing to invest. I guess the question is how badly do you really want it. I’ve been grappling with that since Page 1…