Saturday, July 26, 2014

Self-Taught or Professionally Instructed?

Like many of you who don't grow bored with the nuances of sports or music, I don't mind looking at writing as a craft to be studied from many angles.  When my kids fall asleep in the car or I am driving alone, I listen to a college professor giving a class on writing creative nonfiction.

I am learning there is a technical side to writing that I was barely conscious of.

Certainly, as readers, we can all spot "bad writing" the way you can instantly see the gap for a missing piece in an otherwise completed puzzle.  Even if we don't know what, exactly, is on that piece, it is obvious that it is missing.  As readers, we can't always articulate the exact thing that makes the writing seem "bad" to us, but the feeling is as obvious as that missing piece.

I don't have to be a professional singer to be able to hear when one is singing off-key and I don't have to be a professional writer to be able to sense that something is not working with the story I am reading.

But I DO have to know what is going wrong if I'm the one trying to produce something excellent.

So the instructor describes in painstaking detail what good writers are doing to make the whole thing work.  It's the difference between eating a satisfying, perfectly plated meal and standing in the kitchen and watching the chef juggle a dozen complex tasks in a sort of controlled chaos.

We readers get the very best of it all served up between two lovely covers of our book or Kindle.
The writer was a scrambling slave to the craft of writing shedding blood sweat and tears to get it right.

And this leads me to the thing I am really wondering (and craving conversation about) these days:

Can taking a class that teaches these technical aspects of writing backfire and do more harm than good?

We've probably all met the cook who seems to have a sense about what goes together and cooks with creative experimentation and flair.  Without recipes, she leans on intuition, experience and her own preferences.  She seems confident and unaffected in the kitchen, moving almost effortlessly in her element.  Not everything she ever cooks is a home run, but she consistently produces great food with a happy ease that causes the rest of us to miscalculate its true complexity.

What if that same cook attended a fancy cooking school and was given all kinds of new jargon for her procedures, recipes to follow precisely, and proper techniques and tools for everything she had previously only experimented with or mastered without being entirely conscious of it?  Would this grow her or hinder her?  I truly don't know.

And I compare that to writing.  What if "someone" who has been writing her whole life, and loving it the whole time, goes to a fancy writing class and learns all kinds of new jargon for writing, new rules to follow precisely, new techniques to try to consciously implement....would this grow or hinder her as a writer?

Really, what do you think?  Do writers need to hone their craft one freewheelin', experimental recipe at a time, or should they go to writing school and learn how to take the art and craft of it to the next level?  Do we make up the method, or learn writing techniques and try to use them?

I don't consider myself a professional writer, but like a sports fan or music aficionado, I'd love to hear what other people think or have learned about this question.

1 comment:

  1. Writing is a tool, like speaking, and there may be a wrong way to do it, but more often than not, the writer/speaker understands the message s/he wants to send. If you're writing for yourself, there are no rules. You write the message that makes you happy. If you're writing for others, you write what speaks to your audience.

    As a professional writer, one must view the audience as changing and write for whatever audience is to receive the message - copy writing is this sort of writing.

    Writing non-fiction is a form of copy writing. You write specifically for the audience who will read what you write out of need. A counselor writes for those seeking the answers and solutions offered.

    When writing fiction, you write for the genre. More likely this kind of writing can be taught in a school as a writing style.

    However, any writer who ceases to learn, loses the ability to perfect their craft. Writing is a craft. Just as we learn to use less glue when attaching yarn to paper, we learn to use fewer adverbs, more action, and intensify the emotional, touchy-feely connection of the writing to the reader.

    Education is key to writing, and yet, the question is - Can you educate the heart out of the writing? The answer is yes... Too much education can spoil the heart of the writer. But each writer has to decide how much education is too much, or not enough.