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Can writing ever be taught?

Charlene Smith

Can writing ever be taught? The question surprised me. Would anyone suggest that nursing is an aspect of nurturing and therefore, doesn’t need to be taught? Why should anyone train as a chef? Have you ever wondered why professional dancers will train for eight hours a day, after all it’s ‘just’ dancing?
You’ve guessed the answer, but let me elaborate: if you ever want to be good at anything, you need to study and to practice every day, usually for hours. Michelangelo didn’t get a piece of marble put in front of him and suddenly carve the Pieta. His mother was ill when he was a baby and so he was sent to a family of stone-cutters for his early years. At the age of 13 he was apprenticed to a famous painter, and then learnt sculpting with the Medici family’s famous sculptors. He sculpted the Pieta at the age of 23, but it could be argued that he had spent 23 years learning how with some of the masters of the age, and when he did it took a year to sculpt this powerful image of Mary and her dying son, Jesus.
As an award-winning journalist since the age of 17, and the published author of 14 books, I now teach writing in Boston, USA. My students include professors of neuroscience, astrophysics, chemistry, and medicine, from institutions like Harvard, Boston University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’ve ghost-written books for some of the richest men and women in South Africa and the USA, as well as politicians and a federal judge.
The students that exasperate me are those who come in and think that because they can write an email, they can write a book and ideally, finish it and have it on the shelves in just a few months.  They disrespect the greatness of this art, because even if you are born with a gift, you still need a teacher. Ideally, many teachers. And anything worthwhile takes time, error and disappointment will be your friend, but you don’t give up, you keep at it.
The older I get, the more I study, whether it is classes through Harvard, Stanford, University of Massachusetts, Goddard or Georgetown University, to free edX courses, and never-ending reading and writing. I don’t stop respecting or practicing this craft, or seeking ways to learn more.
There are definite techniques to writing better.  When I arrived in the United States from South Africa it was with some arrogance, I was well-known in South Africa, I’d worked for newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations across the world.  And then I discovered how hard it is to get published if you live in the United States – they do accept lower standards for those of us from other countries, especially in the developing world, but if you have a Boston postmark, they expect more from you. It has been the most humbling – and best – experience of my life. Best, because it has pushed me to be so much better than I ever dreamed I could be. After I finished my Masters I started teaching and I am stilling learning more for, and with, my students.
It has never been harder to get published. And this art form demands that you keep improving. If Mozart needed teachers, then why do you think you need none? Hemingway learnt his craft through journalism, Stephen King studied English, J.K. Rowling studied French and taught English… why do you believe that you alone need no teachers?
There are definite techniques to great writing. So put away this question of “can writing ever be taught” – you bet your life it can be. If you want to be any good as a writer then increase your reading of good literature and great literary magazines, start with the Paris Review or New Yorker, practice their writing styles, along the way your own will emerge. Enrol in a creative writing course at the best university you can afford, start a writing group, and take free courses on edX where you will learn more about great literature.

Here are six books I recommend to my writing students:

- Birkerts, Sven. The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. Saint Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2008.
- King, Stephen. On writing: a memoir of the craft. New York: Scribner, 2000.
 - Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the dead: a writer on writing. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
-  Boleslavsky, Richard. Acting: The First Six Lessons. New York.  Theatre Arts Books. (1969)(Yep, it's about acting but the lessons are very important for writers)
* Eiben, Therese, and Mary Gannon. The practical writer: from inspiration to publication. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
* Gornick, Vivian. The situation and the story: the art of personal narrative. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

- Charlene Smith lives and works in Boston, USA. Two of her books include Mandela: In Celebration of a Great Life (Random House) and Robben Island (Random House). www. charlenesmithwriter.com

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