Write On: Can We Teach Writing?

By Corbin Lewars

This past weekend I took my first fiction writing class in over twenty years. It happened to fall on the same weekend as my birthday, which I viewed as an auspicious way to kick off my forty-third year. After years of writing non-fiction about my life and friends, I looked forward to writing fiction about my life and friends, so I could claim, “it’s not you” and “I didn’t really do that.”

I arrived early with a notebook and several pens. The other students and I looked at each other nervously, pretending we weren’t sizing each other up, but knowing very well we were. Literary sizing up is passive, like most things in Seattle, and writers have come up with one hundred ways to ask, “Are you more accomplished than I am?” without ever asking that.

The instructor entered the room with a bang, literally hitting his hip on the table. He paced maniacally for a few minutes, asked us what the name and topic of the class was, and then said, “I don’t know what I’m doing here, you can’t teach writing.” Needless to say, this wasn’t the auspicious beginning I hoped for.

The class was sponsored by an organization that’s sole purpose is to teach writing and has successfully done so for ten years. I teach writing in that very building, so “you can’t teach writing” was disturbing to hear. But I can’t say it wasn’t a statement I hadn’t wondered about myself. But I didn’t want to ponder such “is my career a fraud” troubling questions on my day off. I especially didn’t want to think about that on my birthday. I wanted to be a student, full of hope and inspiration. I wanted to be taught the nuances of character, plot, arc, and story development. I wanted to know the rules and then be told I could break them, now that I knew what they were. I wanted to write something useful in my notebook. But this never happened.

I left the class early with an empty notebook. I did not get my birthday wish, but as often happens, I got something else, something I didn’t even know I wanted. And that was a renewed faith in teaching.

I was not immune to the stigma that teachers of the arts were really just failed artists and idioms such as, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” I’ve been teaching for over twenty years, but it always came naturally to me, so I assumed everyone could do it. Having school-aged children and taking classes has proven to me that this is not true. Teaching is a skill, just as writing is. And when people are good at teaching, they can and will help others with their art.

Sure, anyone can buy a writing book and learn the craft. But here’s the thing, they don’t. I own Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, which I know from experience can help my craft immensely. But do I pour over it every day? No. Do I even look at once a week? No. The only time I read it is when I use it as a reference for a class I teach. (Don’t worry Priscilla, I always give you credit and plug your book) But I will shell out a lot of money to take a workshop with Priscilla, even though I have everything I need and more in her book. Why? Because I need to be inspired by her. I need the classroom camaraderie to get me to pay attention. I need a reason to care about what a complex sentence is versus a compound sentence and I’m sorry, I don’t care about that when I’m by myself. But when I watch Priscilla talk about the two, I care very much. And I start to vary my sentences in my own writing. I use what she teaches and it improves my writing. Which shows me, writing can be taught.

And many people can teach it in many ways. Working with the poets in my writers group inspired me to use more details in my writing. Eavesdropping on conversations helps improve my dialogue. Clients tell me the thing I help them most with is understanding what their story is about. This may seem like a basic question, but until you know it, you don’t really understand why you’re writing, so it is much easier to lose your motivation. When you ask yourself, “Why does this matter? Who wants to hear about this?” and you can’t answer your own question, it’s very difficult to want to devote time to your writing. And time and diligence are great teachers.

The gift underneath the gift was the realization that not all artists are good teachers, but the art itself my be a good teacher. My Hunter S. Thompsonesque fiction teacher didn’t fill my head and notebook with salient points, or even make sense at times, but his books have taught me a great deal. He is a master at taking every day, perhaps even unlikable characters, and making them very likable. He is also a marvel at endings that aren’t really endings. Nothing bothers me more than an ending where everyone skips off into the sunset with all of his or her problems solved. Or an ending that I can predict within five pages of the book. This writer’s books never do that and his endings always delight me. His books have also showed me that a plot arc can be a little mouse hill. In fact, those arcs are often more believable, and captivating (for me) than large plot arcs. Let’s face it, real people just don’t change that much. And they certainly don’t spend every day chasing killers and saving or even changing lives. And that is the kind of book I like best. Books that are (or read like they are) about real people. So thank you Hunter S. Thomspsonesque teacher for giving me the best birthday presents ever: knowledge and inspiration.

Corbin Lewars (www.corbinlewars.com) mentors other writers in her office in Ballard and virtually. She is the author of Creating a Life: The memoir of a writer and mom in the making, which was nominated for the 2011 PNBA and Washington State book awards and her essays have been featured in over twenty-five publications including Mothering, Hip Mama and several anthologies. She lives in Ballard with her two children.

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