Can Great Writers Be Taught?

BY DAVID HOPKINS

A 2009 New Yorker piece written by Louis Menand (“Show or Tell: Should creative writing be taught?”) has a cynical and comical view of creative writing programs.

“Creative writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers.”

It’s a good read for anyone who wants to teach writing or anyone who wants to dump money into a writing program. However, at times, Menand offers a limited view of how creative writing classes operate, in order to prove his point — until eventually coming around to defend a rather flimsy reason for such programs, i.e. “I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.”

Several questions are raised. For instance, do writing programs actually make writers great or are they simply attended by great writers? To my knowledge, after almost a decade of teaching creative writing, the only professional writer to come out of my class . . . was me. Hardly a prestigious alumnus. But then, the other question: is the point of a creative writing program really to produce professionals? Is it publish-or-perish?

My class made good writers better. The great writers didn’t need me; they’d figure it out on their own. And as for the terrible writers, if I made them slightly more conscious of the clutter in their work, I’d take that as a win. In my class, we didn’t “workshop” much at all. For my high school students, I wasn’t interested in the “ritual scarring/twelve-on-one group therapy.” They already get that enough simply being a teenager and in high school. I focused on clarity in their work, using Zinsser’s ON WRITING WELL as a foundation. And I talked a lot about story structure.

I did this to address my two biggest concerns about young writers. 
 
 (1) Students have been tricked into overvaluing adverbs and adjectives. They’re rewarded for convoluted sentences. (Yes, “convoluted” is an adjective. Shut up.)
 
 (2) Students have lost the ability to tell a story.

My creative writing class revolved around an adopted two-point mantra (which I discovered here): “No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand” and “Nobody has to read this crap.” Be clear, and be interesting.

For a few years, I also coached a writing group, which participated in interscholastic competitions. Unlike creative writing class, I had a small group of students to work with. Instead of 30 teenagers in a classroom, I sat with four or five at a table in the library during lunch. They were gifted and hungry (literally hungry, food wasn’t allowed in the library). Some of them had already taken my creative writing class. We moved from Zinsser to my favorite book on writing, A WRITER’S COACH by Jack Hart.

In this group, we workshopped like hell.

Workshopping was easier with this group. They had a singular task: In two hours, write an expository essay based off a prompt that included an excerpt from literature, publications, or speeches. It was easier to show them good examples, and we could be more systematic in our efforts. There was a formula. I would often write with them, so they could see what I was producing, and I could better relate to what they were dealing with.

My last year as the writing coach, we kicked ass. We placed (1st, 2nd, or 3rd) in every single tournament. And all my writers were in the top ten, every time. I told them the goal wasn’t to win, even though we did, the goal was to be better writers. Focus on improving ourselves and not on winning, and we win. My objective was simple. Make them more confident, bolder in their craft, and a little more self-aware of their process.

How does anyone make someone great? “Great” is such a slippery term, and one that I don’t want to throw around to just anyone who can write a coherent short story or essay. You have to find “great” on your own. “Great” comes from self-discipline, years of focused effort, and a ride-or-die attitude about your art. “Great” cannot be found in a class, a book, or an online article about writing.

As a teacher, I’ll settle for better.

David Hopkins just finished a writing project with D&D Adventurers League—and has now returned to working on the second draft of his novel. It’s an exciting time in his life. Visit his website: thatdavidhopkins.com