This Cannot Be Taught

Can you teach writing? Can you teach someone to be a writer?

It is easy to say “Hell no!” while smacking the top of the desk, journals and inkwells rattling at the impact. Yet, to suggest writing cannot be taught brings up the question: how the hell did I get here?

Language can be taught. The mechanics of writing – from the shape of the letters to the parts of speech – can be taught. Most of us figured out how to compose an email or a Tweet. Writing, though, as the expressive means? Can that be taught?

Like most crafts, I do not believe it can.

Beyond the mechanics of the thing there isn’t much to teach. Maybe discipline.

Language can be taught, expression cannot.

There is the question on the table if structured writing programs are actually doing any good for writers. If a college degree is a requirement to knowing what makes for a good novel. Or has the formalized instruction and curriculums and critiques have all but destroyed the very thing that makes writing, and the reading of such writing, the joy it was supposed to be.

Seeing the sausage get made, more or less.


I’ve sat around my share of tables with other writers in workshops and critique groups. Every one of them works under the assumption: shame on you if you don’t bring anything. What if you were the only one who wasn’t writing? What if you brought the worst thing to the table that week? An anxiety had by one, shared by all, effectively rendered itself neutral.

Each group created the unspoken, collective anxiety that served as a constant self-reflection: is this group for you? Is this craft for you? If you stopped writing tomorrow, could you live out the rest of your days satisfied and happy?

Each group I shared work with was a balancing act of wondering if I wrote clearly enough, and assuming they had the reading comprehension to understand what I was attempting to say. At the end of each group, one or the other needed to be adjusted but we were too polite to say which.

Can this be taught?

Well, no one ever taught me.