Sunday, June 12, 2016

Can You Teach Someone to Be a Writer?

I’m excited to be giving a talk at the Catamaran Writing Conference in Pebble Beach, California, from July 31 to August 4, 2016. It’s an honor to be teaching alongside a stellar group of faculty colleagues.

Check out the website to see the fabulous lineup of instructors, including Molly Gloss, Elizabeth Rosner, and Joseph Millar. Novelist Jonathan Franzen and poet Dorianne Laux will give evening talks, and the conference will feature guided trips to some of the scenic literary landmarks along the Central California Coast, including John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in Monterey, Robinson Jeffer’s Tor House in Carmel, and nearby Robert Louis Stevenson sites.

Trip to Tor House at last year's conference
The conference takes place at the Stevenson School, named for Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Treasure Island was set nearby. The Stevenson School is a lovely venue located on the famous 17-Mile Drive. 

Along the 17-Mile Drive
The food is the best I’ve ever had at a cafeteria—California cuisine with many fresh, local ingredients. And there’s an Olympic pool and fitness center.

But can creative writing actually be taught?

I’ve heard so many people say, “You can’t teach someone to be a writer.” What do those words mean, exactly? Do they mean you’re born with talent and drive and it’s determined by larger forces that you will either be a writer or not? Or do they mean that your upbringing and ingrained personality are conducive to writing well, or they are not?

Either way, there is a hint of predestination about this idea that bothers me. Haven’t we all had teachers who inspired and influenced us? Would any writer succeed without a mentor or mentors, and a community of peers?

True, you cannot implant literary talent in a person who does not have it, as if giving someone a donated kidney. But, as the writer Ishmael Reed has said, “Talent is widespread.” The difference between someone who wants to be a writer, and someone who becomes a writer, is often encouragement, mentoring, and a supportive community.

What sort of mentoring helps a person develop into a strong writer? One thing I try to do as a teacher of creative writing is to help students recognize when they have tapped a rich vein. Often newer writers will hit on a lively idea without even realizing that it could be the basis of an entire book. Pointing out those opportunities so students can recognize them for themselves is one important thing a mentor can give newer writers. Along with that, students can learn how to spot cliché language or situations in their writing, and how to dig deeper to transcend those. 

Validation is also extremely valuable. I remember so well the very first meeting I had with June Jordan, who was the advisor for both my undergraduate and graduate creative writing theses—coincidentally, at two different universities. I first met with June in her office in the Department of African American Studies at Yale University. Her office was in a fussy, imitation Gothic building, an odd match for June, with her revolutionary, iconoclastic views. 

June asked me to read out loud the poem I had written that week. She listened with that skeptical twitch she sometimes had in her right eye. It was a poem about an imaginary lamppost. It’s not a poem I’m proud of today, but June heard something she liked in it, and she was smiling broadly by the end of the poem. She said you to me, “You’ve got something. Don’t let anyone ever talk you out of it.” Well, I’m not sure that poem really had anything—I’d never publish it now, and I don’t believe I still have a copy of it. And I’m sure June said that to many, many students over her long and illustrious teaching career. But June’s validation of my desire to be a writer has stayed with me since that day, even though June is no longer with us.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer