A reader of last week’s blog delivered an impassioned lecture on never saying “every writer” or “always,” something that I have long taken care not to do. When I was a very young teacher teaching high school, I taught passionately according to the way I would have wanted to be taught. And I had a very good system . . . for me and for those students who learned as I did.
It was only years later that it occurred to me that my teaching style had probably served a small portion of my students very well, a majority of them partially, and a few of them not at all.
The more years I spent as a writing teacher the more I understood that different people come to their work differently, which is part of what I was saying last week. Some throw words at the page, as many and as fast as they can, then return later to discover what they really want to say. Some work, as I do, putting the words down with thought and care, polishing with each step forward. And I had a student once who created an entire novel in her head, each word, each comma, and then, when it came time to write it down, did so without ever changing a thing.
When I talk about writing, about the how-tos of writing, I always try to acknowledge those differences. Sometimes it’s hard not to say simply “This is the way to do it” when the truth is it’s the way I do it. But if we follow the path of acknowledging individual differences too far, we end up in the world of “writing can’t be taught,” an old axiom that serves only those who want to seem to belong to a very exclusive club.
Writing can be taught, mostly through doing it and having competent readers let you know what serves them and what does not. That, more than any other way of teaching, is what makes MFA programs such as the one I used to teach in at the Vermont College of Fine Arts so powerful. Students have ongoing relationships with and receive one-on-one critiques both from professionals and from their peers. But while this personal touch is powerful, there are also craft techniques to understand, and learning those does much to clarify a writer’s journey.
Teaching writing for forty years did much to improve my own writing. When teaching, I had to be able to say not just, “This doesn’t work” but why it didn’t work and what might be needed instead. As I listened to myself explaining basic principles of craft, I came to understand them better myself. Hundreds of times I talked about weaving indirect thought through the narration to keep the reader close to the perceiving character, and as I did I grew more aware of inhabiting my own perceiving character.
For twenty years I was in a relationship with a partner who used to accompany me from time to time when I lectured. She wasn’t a writer, but when I grew frustrated enough with the manuscript I was working on to bring up my struggle as dinner conversation, she would sometimes say, “Wouldn’t you tell a student . . .” And she would say exactly what she had heard me say to my fellow writers and what I, myself, needed to hear at that moment. Yes, there are concepts to learn about craft, and while last week I didn’t use the word “always” or say they applied to “every writer,” I certainly implied as much.
Each scene needs to move your story forward.
Leaner writing is stronger writing.
But now I’ll add something else:
All such statements are true . . . until they aren’t.
I know of only one rule that is always true.
You have to make whatever you are doing on the page work for your reader.