In a comment on my recent post called “Shape in Writing,” Chris Roberts writes that he “is amused when writers try to ‘teach’ writing. The best writing is done intuitively, absent constructs and dictates.”
As I pondered Chris’s intriguing thoughts, they brought to mind a little book called On the Teaching of Creative Writing, a series of questions posed to Wallace Stegner, who was one of my writing professors at Stanford, along with his responses. I hadn’t intended to post anything again about Mr. Stegner, having just written about him on a recent post (July 6), but the idea of bringing in a Higher Authority who could speak much more eloquently than I to the matter appealed to me. When I took down the book, which I hadn’t looked at in years, and read what he had to say, I decided others might find his thoughts as wise and generous as I did.
I am selecting and severely editing the questions and his replies for the sake of blog brevity (not my strong suit, apparently). You will find a lot more on the subject in this 72 page mini-book.
What, Mr. Stegner, is your reply to the question of whether creative writing can, in point of fact, be “taught”? –
W.S. “That question has been coming at me, as you can imagine, for a long time, because I taught writing for something like forty-four years, before retiring…
“Within the academy, of course, there are limited things that a teacher can do, apart from encouraging the environment of interest and criticism within which writing can take place. How can anyone ‘teach’ writing, when he himself, as a writer, is never sure what he is doing?
“Every book that anyone sets out on is a voyage of discovery that may discover nothing. Any voyager may be lost at sea, like John Cabot. Nobody can teach the geography of the undiscovered. All he can do is encourage the will to explore, plus impress upon the inexperienced a few of the dos and don’ts of voyaging.
“A teacher who has been on those seas can teach certain things—equivalents of the use of compass and sextant: the language and its uses, and certain tested literary tools and techniques and strategies and stances and ways of getting at the narrative essence of a story or novel or the dramatic force of a play or the memorableness of a poetically honed thought.
“Any teacher can discourage bad (meaning, unproductive or ineffective) habits and encourage those that work. He can lead a young talent to do what it is most capable of doing, and save it from some frustrating misdirections. He can communicate the necessary truth that good writing is an end in itself, that an honest writer is a member of a worthy guild. That may be the most important function of the teacher of writing.”