Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Can Writing Be Taught?

Poetmom posted a link to this interesting New Yorker article on MFA program. It talks about the question of whether writing can be taught, and if not, then what is the point of MFA programs in the first place?

The piece is a reaction to a recent book called "The Program Era" by Mark McGurl, which talks about the huge rise in MFA programs in recent history (which, I learned through the article, was first due to the fact that WWI Vets could only get government money for degree programs, so MFA programs sprouted up as a way for vets to take creative writing classes for free).

Here is my reaction to the article. I'd love to hear yours, too!

First, the question of whether writing can be taught. I think writing takes three things:
1. Stick-to-it-iveness. Writing is hard and lonely, and often filled with rejections. You've got to have immense perseverance not to give up. Oh, and did I mention that writers are usually not paid for their work, or at least not up front, while they're actually doing it?

2. Talent/creativity.

3. Knowledge. Knowledge about literature, about the structure of a story/novel/poem, about what works and what doesn't.

Of these three, number 1 is most important, in my mind. I don't think you can make someone be more dedicated, or more "sticky". But talking about how much perseverance writing takes can help people realize every writer feels like writing is a tough, tough thing that they occasionally want to give up on. That can be an invaluable lesson.

Number 2, inspiration, can't be taught. It can be given room to blossom, but that's different than teaching someone how to have talent or be creative.

Number 3, knowledge about writing and literature, can certainly be taught. I came out of my MFA program with much more knowledge on these subjects that's one of the things I came out of my MFA program that I did not have going in.

What's also discussed in the article is the things outside of learning to write that one gets from an MFA program. From my MFA experience, the most important were:

**The ability to make my writing a priority. As the New Yorker writer, Louis Menand, put it, "to actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon)."

**A sense of community, and some of the best friends I'll probably ever have. Again, to quote from the article, (this from a part where Menand talks about his own experience studying poetry): "I just thought that this stuff mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other's poems, seemed like a great place to be." Amen to that. Best Blogger Tips


Thinking Aloud said...

You can teach writing but the "stuff" that makes the writing good, meaningful and craving to be read comes from a place inside of you that surpasses learning and the need to be taught.

Writer Bug said...

Very well said, Thinking Aloud!