Sunday, January 9, 2011

Being a Writer

In the Feb, 2011 issue of The Writer, Charles Baxter discussed some of his insights into literary writing. Asked "How do you think new writers are best developed?" he answered, "I really don't know. They're good observers; they read; they don't mind solitude; they remember what people said and did; they're interested in ideas; they try to notice everything; they always feel slightly outside, looking in."

I identify with this list of qualities and attributes, but I see that most of these items are not things you can easily develop or train. Perhaps memory can be trained; some of my writing classes have increased my enjoyment of certain kinds of memories that I had previously repressed. Maybe good observation can be stimulated. Natalie Goldberg's walking meditation seemed extraneous at first, but I can easily recall the smell of the desert earth in Sedona where I had her class, the soft lavender color of the sage flowers, the industry of the many ants, the cracked, tired looking feet of the young woman walking in front of me. Slowing down to look can be taught, it seems.

But reading for enjoyment doesn't seem all that malleable. Neither does comfort with solitude or an outsider view. I wonder, then, if teaching writing is more of an opportunity or a release of a desire than an actual discipline. What do writing teachers teach? Is it just permission to be yourself?


Anonymous said...

So you think we're born writers or not? I do think some of the people in writing classes with me have improved greatly. I didn't used to like to be their critique partners, but now I don't mind. So at least some of the mechanics can be taught, right? Inspiration and "voice" whatever that is, are those the things you cannot teach?

Lorelei said...

I agree. You do learn to express your ideas better via writing classes. You forget was and would verbs, you delete adverbs with weak verbs and substitute strong verbs, you use correct sentence structure and punctuation. You don't use vague pronouns. But the ability to tell a compelling story, to make the reader want to read more, beg to read more, I'm not sure you can teach that. A good teacher can liberate it, but a bad teacher can inhibit it.

Anonymous said...

I definitely think everyone can benefit from writing classes, but that's not equivalent to saying everyone is capable of being a great writer. Flannery O'Conner famously recommended that people stop trying to teach writing. I have some sympathy with that idea when I read so-called 'light reading' in airplanes these days, after Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Quite a come down, and doomed to fade like the grass.