Not surprisingly, this blog was motivated by a certain scathing article written by an ex-MFA teacher about his experience teaching writing to students who were, in his opinion, hardworking but hopeless.
Can writing be taught? Yes. Everything can be taught. Piano, carpentry, tennis. You want to teach me some martial arts moves? Bring it on. Writing is a craft. The craft has rules. The rules have exceptions. It’s good to know all of these if you want to write well.
Can everyone be a great writer? Obviously not. Not everyone who learns to play the piano is going to be Mozart. Not everyone who learns to play tennis will be Nadal. So what? Just because you might not end up being Mozart, does this mean you have no business taking piano lessons? How do you know you’re not Mozart unless you do take lessons? If you’re not Mozart, are you useless? Will you derive no joy whatsoever from playing piano?
Why should the rules be different for writers? They aren’t.
Students are, by nature, people who are learning. That means, they might not be very good at it when they start. They might not read the best books. They might not even realize that reading is important. The teacher’s job is to take his or her students and guide them towards the things that will help them improve. To take whatever they start with and shape it into the best thing it can be. Each student is unique. They bring their own material to the table. What they should leave with at the end of an MFA is the best possible version of their uniqueness.
I believe talent is a component that is overrated. If I was a gambler, I’d put my money on an average writer who knows how to work hard over someone who is supposedly talented but doesn’t know how to apply the AOC rule (Ass On Chair: with thanks to MFA classmate William Robinson for coining this classic acronym).
And, may I put these bees out into the world: books like Infinite Jest might not be for everyone. I’ve come across several prize-winning books that lose me by page 10. Not because I can’t hack it, but because I don’t like it. Doesn’t make me stupid. Doesn’t make me a bad writer. It just means I don’t have exactly the same tastes as other readers (I haven’t read Infinite Jest, by the way, so I’m not picking on it for any reason except that it was mentioned in the article. But maybe I’m not supposed to tell you that. Maybe I’m not supposed to mention that because I write mostly young adult novels, that is mostly what I read. Now you’re judging me, I can feel it).
And, may I add a final few bees: not everyone who starts an MFA finishes by embracing the writing life. Not everyone who finishes law school ends up practicing law. I know trained physicians who have decided not to practice medicine. So what? What this means is not that the MFA program is a failure, but that it is not particularly special. It’s like every other program at university. Some people thrive in it; some don’t.
Not everyone who teaches is meant to be a teacher, either.