by Tim Tomlinson
“I don’t care if it’s lousy. The only way to learn how to write is to write.” Susan Sontag, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963
This is going to be one of those on-the-one-hand-but-then-on-the-other arguments. Because it has to be.
The issue: can creative writing be taught?
In New York Writers Workshop’s 2006 guide to craft, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, I wrote, “When you hear a [workshop instructor] say that writing can’t be taught, run to another workshop.” I followed with a few arguments supporting the notion that creative writing can be taught, and I suggested a potentially cynical motivation for those who said that it cannot. Now, ten years, four printings, and thirty thousand-plus copies later, I wonder if there is any reasonable support for the “it cannot be taught” position.
More and more I see that, in the end, writing can only be done, it can’t be learned, by which I mean that at a certain point it’s necessary to put down the books, skip the lectures, withdraw from the workshops, avoid the consultations, ignore the “helpful” opinions, and just write. Write a lot. Write “the end” on a whole bunch of pieces, and send them out.
The poet Richard Hugo said that whenever a creative writing instructor critiques your piece, what s/he’s really saying is: “Write it the way I would.” If David Foster Wallace (RIP) had listened to his MFA instructors, and to many of his colleagues in the program, he’d probably still be struggling to write, unsuccessfully, the way they would. Instead of listening, and revising to specifications, David Foster Wallace wrote (or had written). He sent his un-MFA’d manuscript, The Broom of the System, to Viking. He finished the first year of his MFA program under the cloud of near-dismissal, he returned for his second year with a hardcover novel published by a major house, and with many significant favorable reviews (something none of his colleagues, and few if any of his teachers, could say). This is the Never-Mind-the-Bollocks-Here’s-My-Book school of writing, and it worked for the career of David Foster Wallace.
Ironically, perhaps, David Foster Wallace wound up as the Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College where, among other things, he taught … creative writing. [NB: See the D.T. Max bio, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, for a full account on this and other DFW details.] Wallace did not do things he didn’t believe in, so one assumes he worked from the belief that creative writing could be, even should be taught. Maybe just not by MFA programs, or particular MFA programs, or particular “teachers” (no argument here).
Maybe he saw what I’ve seen, too much and too often: Wattpad, Fanfiction, Figment—drivel of the most execrable order. The “writers” whose “work” appears in these venues, and others like them, are unschooled, and, of course, so are their readers, tens of thousands of them. If the purpose of writing is to be read, then many of these writers are succeeding swimmingly. If the purpose of writing is to write well, and meaningfully, enduringly, originally, then these Wattpad etc. writers aren’t writing, they’re—to update the old Truman Capote put-down—txting.
Near the conclusion of her miraculously inspirational Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963, Susan Sontag writes:
The writer must be four people:
1. The nut, the obsédé
2. The moron
3. The stylist
4. The critic
1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence.
A great writer has all 4—but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.
The Wattpad school seems to embrace only (perhaps appropriately) number 2. More serious schools of creative writing can teach numbers 3 and 4. They can only model, encourage, facilitate, and cultivate numbers 1 and 2.
In an earlier contribution to this column, I provided a few key resources for sending work out, and I’ll include them again here: Poets & Writers (pw.org/toolsforwriters), Duotrope (duotrope.com), and Creative Writers Opportunities List (https://beta.groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/CRWROPPS-B/info). Both Poets & Writers and Duotrope offer extensive and fairly current guides to what’s out there in the way of print and online journals.
One of the great pleasures of writing in longhand is the sense of self it gives the writer, of authenticity. The words you write down in longhand look like no one else’s. They are as singular as a snowflake. This can be very encouraging for writers who don’t feel they have an authentic voice, a style all their own. You look at the page and you see—uniqueness. The letters and words could only have come from your hand. The dips, curves, swoops and connections are a portrait of the person writing them. When you are lucky enough to receive a handwritten letter from someone, you feel that you’re getting a bit of the soul of the person on the page. A handwritten letter is more than simple words. It’s a living proxy statement.
If a writer sees that there is something unique coming from his or her hand, how far is the leap to thinking something unique can come from his or her brain, and heart?
There is also a sense of building, of crafting, that comes from writing in longhand. When you look back at a page you’ve written, you’re looking at something you’ve built. There it is: a page of words and sentences you have made with your own hand. When you look at a page filled with your own handwriting, you can say, “I make words. I build paragraphs. I construct stories—by hand. My stories and essays are handmade.”
Practically speaking, writing with a pen or pencil is still the most versatile and portable form of composition. All you need is pen and paper. There are laptops, of course, but outlets aren’t always available, and a battery’s power is finite. Drop me into the forest with a pen and a small notepad, and I can write away. All Abraham Lincoln needed was the back of an envelope to compose one of the most famous speeches in history. The most extreme example of this on-the-spot ingenuity I can think of is the case of Jean Genet. Denied writing paper while he was in jail, he wrote an entire novel on toilet paper. Something to remember if you’re ever sent up the river. Writers have employed a carnival-like array of surfaces when the need calls—the inside of matchbooks, bookmarks, calling cards, drink coasters (remember where writers congregate), the ever-handy paper napkin, even the palms of their hands. That would make an interesting museum exhibit, minus the hands.
I think, too, that if you’re susceptible to the influence of tradition—and I am—writing in longhand can link you to writers of the past as computers never can. You know that Herman Melville sat with a pen in hand—probably not the same make as yours—just like you, and he wrote words on a page. Melville did not use a computer. Neither did Shakespeare, now that we’re naming names. Before the invention of the typewriter, all writers wrote with a pen or pencil. So, pick your hero. You’re sitting there with your pen poised—like Proust in his cork-lined room; like Edith Wharton sitting in her bed at The Mount; like Pablo Neruda looking at the ocean from his study on Isla Negra.
Children still learn to write letter by letter with their pens or pencils. (At least I think they do.) I hope they always will. One of the great prideful moments a child has is cracking the code of script, making the leap between printing and cursive writing. It’s one of the first great leaps of independence for them and one of the first times they can have something that is uniquely theirs. The feeling of power and accomplishment of this leap I think remains deep within all of us. The faintest doses of this pride are released when we write by hand, even when we are fully grown. Somewhere, we think, “Look: I did this, and nobody else could.”
Just as a pilot who is skywriting has difficulty getting perspective on words written in the air, it’s difficult to see your own work on the page with a clear eye. You can hire a professional editor or pay a fellow writer, but a completely free and simple way to get another perspective is to read your work aloud. As Hermann Hesse said, “Everything becomes a little different as soon as it is spoken out loud.”
With our lightning fast texting and e-mailing we often press “Send” before we even re-read the words on the screen, and that unedited writing has seeped into our “real” writing as well.
Clarity is the most important thing in good writing, and sloppy sentences are being flung around the globe. Most of us are talking less on the phone, and replacing that sound with a scrambling of our fingers on the keyboard or thumbs on our smartphones. I have nothing against these new-fangled inventions, but they have muted our voices. We can cut and paste without scissors or glue, but we often have so many drafts and so often cannot remember which versions came first, that something is lost in the shuffle, making careful revisions even more important.
As writers we know we need to write every day or five days a week or whatever our self-imposed schedule is, and we all know the importance of reading, but we so often forget to read aloud, whether it’s the classics to loved ones or bedtime stories to children. The human voice is an essential tool for a writer. Print out your words, and then take them into the woods or to a mountaintop, or at least to another room. Read them aloud somewhere where you can really hear yourself, not in the subway or a crowded theater, but in a place where you can hear your own voice. And when you stumble, or rush the words, or begin to mumble, that is where you must use your pen and edit. You can read to your cat or your dog or pig, but there is always a risk of reading your work to a loved one who can speak because, let’s be honest, all you really want from them is to be told how wonderful your writing is.
When someone calls you on the phone and tells you a story or sits across a table from you and confides his or her woes, there is no script. You listen, intently if it’s interesting. But if your mind wanders, that’s what needs to be edited in a story.
Listening to spoken voices, to real dialogue, is a skill all writers need to hone, but listening to the written word is just as important.
I once had a student who was scared to read his work aloud, because he said he had never said the name of his lover aloud before, not since she had died thirty years before. He had only written three sentences, and I encouraged him to at least read those sentences aloud. He agreed, and as soon as he spoke his lover’s name, he burst into tears. After that he went home and wrote ten pages. The simple act of saying the name aloud opened up a closed world to him.
Read your work aloud and then read it aloud over and over. Read it and read it until the words sing off the page.