BJH: The Best Writing Teacher(s) of All
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King, speaking about learning to write, says that “you learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself. These lessons almost always occur with the study door closed.” He points out that “Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi, post office,” and that he (King) “learned the most valuable…part of my life’s work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at the New Franklin Laundry in Bangor.”
If you read much about writing and writers, you’ve almost certainly come across the admonition that to write well—and successfully—you must read…and write. “Read, read, read. And write, write, write.” It’s preached time and time again. Yet no matter how many times they’ve heard it, writers and those working toward becoming writers seem unceasingly interested in hearing the answer to the common question “how did you learn to write?” Or, questions such as “what (or who) has been most helpful to you in your writing life?”
If you’ve been curious enough to ask that question yourself, you may or may not have been surprised to learn that many published writers give the least credit of all to their college English or creative writing courses, as well as workshops, seminars and critique groups. Not that the instruction and technical information gained from all the above isn’t helpful; certainly the benefits shouldn’t be discounted. Still, if you’ve read the remarks shared by numerous authors—the famous and the not-so-famous, but quality writers all the same—you’ve undoubtedly come across the emphasis on three elements above all others as their “best teachers.” Reading, writing, and life experience.
Before I wrote this entry, I added to the information with which I was already familiar by querying a number of friends who are also writers and who have been publishing for several years in a variety of genres. Granted, this is a very generalized summary, but I thought you might be interested in it anyway. So without using any names, I’ll just post some of the feedback I received, combined with a bit of this & that.
This was a fairly simple effort actually, because here’s the way it shook out: Almost without exception, reading and writing topped the list of the most important “teachers” on the way to publication. Critique groups came in last—most respondents had never been a member of a critique group. Next to last? Creative writing classes or correspondence (or on-line) courses. Conferences and seminars were cited more for the value in networking and fellowship than actual instruction, although a few emphasized that the information they'd gained there had proved invaluable. Reading and writing, by the way, included not just the reading of novels or general reading, but the reading of magazines and books about writing, especially when written by well-known authors, whether from the past or by some of our contemporary authors.
Dean Koontz, who has much to say about the importance of avid reading in learning to write, also made this statement in his book on writing fiction: “To a certain extent, a novel can be dissected, its musculature revealed, its skeleton uncovered for study. But a pathologist cannot find a man’s soul while doing an autopsy on his corpse, and a critic can never hope to pin down and dissect the spirit of a novel. Primarily, one learns to write fiction by writing it, then by writing more of it and more of it and more….”
Naturally, it stands to reason that, as Koontz says, “While there is some benefit to be derived from the feedback that a beginning writer receives from other students and from his instructor, by far the greatest portion of his artistic maturation will take place when he is in a room by himself, confronted only by blank pages.”
In case you’re wondering, next to reading and writing, life experience came in at the top of the list. This has been so often pointed out by some of our greatest writers that it’s almost a predictable response. In fact, it seems to me that it should go hand-in-hand with reading and writing.
Another element frequently cited as “most valuable” was editorial input. So, editors—be assured that your role is vital in the development of good writers, even though you may not hear the kudos as often as you deserve.
Obviously, there are exceptions to some of the above. That’s only natural, since we learn in different ways, in different situations, at different paces. I’m simply giving you a summary.
I’m probably a poor one to ask about any of this, since I’ve never been a member of a critique group, never attended a writers conference, never worked with a mentor. But I’ll weigh in anyway, and my response falls in with the majority of the others. I’d definitely name reading and writing—and of course life experience—as my “best teachers.”
What about you?