The Myth of Writing Can’t Be Taught

There’s a myth that I keep hearing about. For some reason, people think that art in general but writing, in particular, is the only endeavor in the entirety of human existence that cannot be taught beyond the ability to type. That somehow writing is the only thing where hard work counts for naught and natural ability is the only thing that makes a writer worth reading. To quote Tim Minchin: “Wow. That’s a good point, let me think for a bit. No, wait, that’s absolute bullshit.”

I’m a firm believer in stories. Our brains are wired to tell them and take them in whatever form they’re presented to us and learn from them. Every one of us has the brain to be a story teller. Of course, natural talent does play a part. And maybe you can’t turn someone with an appalling sense of rhythm and theme and character into an award-worthy writer, sure. But that isn’t the same as “writing can’t be taught”.

Writing has a number of facets that affect it. Character, plot, theme, those are just the very beginning. All of it is subject to being able to practice and learn, just like anything else. Writing is about practice. There are so many people who are writers today, making a living at it, who were told by some tosspot that they were, nor would they ever be writers because they didn’t naturally write like bestsellers or award winners.

Writing requires work (which is not to say that it’s hard labor. There’s a difference). For everyone. The talented and the untalented alike. There are people with natural talent who never bothered with the work and therefore never succeeded. Telling people not to work at achieving their dreams because they might not happen is, in my not so humble opinion, cowardice or simply being mean. That doesn’t mean that everyone who has a dream of being a writer should pursue it with single-minded determination.

I’m not saying, “quit your day job if you want to be an artist”. I’m saying, do something. Write a poem, a novel, a short story. Show it to someone who a) won’t rip your heart out and make you eat it while it’s still beating and b) will still give you feedback. Repeat. At some point, get teaching from a working writer or editor. Someone who actually knows what it’s like to be the man or woman in the arena. Listen to them, try out what they tell you to, they might actually know something more than you do. And then again, they might not. We’re not all perfect, unique snowflakes, but nor are we exactly the same either. If something is hard, that just means it needs more work. And if nothing is hard, then you’re probably not developing as an artist.

Go out there and make art. It probably won’t be as good as you hope it will be but here’s what you do: make more art. And when you can’t see what to do to make your art better, ask the man in the arena. Maybe writing can’t be taught but it can for damn sure be learned.

Edited to add: As it happens, the day after I wrote this I started reading Mindset by Carol Dweck which explains at length why natural talent as a predictor of success is absolute bullshit. Also good for explaining why we are culturally primed for impostor syndrome. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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