build Can You Learn to Write? I Never Had To

by Thomas E. Kennedy

Published in Issue No. 83 ~ April, 2004

As I write this, I sit in the Bronte room of Hawthornden, a medieval castle on a secluded crag overlooking the valley of the river North Esk. Here I shall be for the coming days, preparing this book for print, and here the great Ben Jonson was also once the guest of William Drummond, who owned the castle. Thus, it seems appropriate — even if Jonson and Drummond parted on less than friendly terms at the time — to begin this work with a quote from Dr. Jonson: “A good poet is made as well as born.”

I do not believe there has ever been a successful writer who has not studied writing to learn the craft. Here perhaps we must define terms, to wit “successful” and “studied.” I shall eschew any attempt to define the former lest I find myself vulnerable to charges of having excluded features from the profile of success simply because they are not my own (e.g., an appearance on Oprah Winfrey, publication by a major New York house, front-face displays in airports and Barnes & Noble, rave reviews in the New York Times Book Review, and so forth). Granted, these and other attributes might accompany the highest literary excellence, but these are not the measures of success to which I refer, which I can most simply identify as writing that is in some manner a profound expression of our existential predicament; in the words of another local Scot, from just eight miles down the road in Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson:

The poet . . . is to find some way of speaking about
life that shall satisfy, if only for the moment,
(wo) man’s enduring astonishment at his (her) own
position. And besides having an answer ready, it
is he who shall provoke the question. He must
shake people out of their indifference, and force
them to make some election in this world, instead
of sliding dully forward in a dream . . . He is the
declared enemy of all
living by reflex action, of all the
pleasureless pleasuring and imaginary duties in
which we coin away our hearts and fritter
invaluable years.”

I believe that any writer whose work can be thus described would have had to study writing. Reading and contemplating the work of the masters is the classic manner of doing so. A writer may do this on his or her own, in isolation, and/or by building and judiciously using a network of intelligent colleagues, and/or by pursuing a course of formal study of literature and/or the art of writing.

In brief, one can do it alone, on one’s own or one can do it in community with others. I have tried it both ways and find the latter method far superior to the former.

Some writers — even some who make their living teaching college writing courses — pride themselves on saying, “I never took a course in writing. I never had to.” Others — for example, the extremely gifted fiction writer W.D. Wetherell — never took a writing course or even met another writer until some time into their careers, but do not make a point of honor of this.

Wetherell worked in isolation for some years before joining the faculty of Vermont College’s MFA Program. He likened the moment of being welcomed by fellow faculty member Gordon Weaver his first day there to the historic meeting in the wilderness between H.M. Stanley and David Livingstone (another Scot whose statue stands alongside the enormous monument to Sir Walter Raleigh on Princes Street in Edinburgh):

“Professor Weaver, I presume.”

Writing in isolation, Wetherell had published two books and many stories (and has gone on to publish many more), but had never met another writer before that moment. However, that he had never taken a writing course is not the same as saying he had never studied writing; clearly, he had — he had studied and learned from the masters he most admired; Hawthorne, Melville, Proust, Chekov . . .

I am not certain that all potential writers are capable, given the limited years allotted us, of learning the craft they need on their own just as most people would be hard pressed to build a house without first being taught a few things about brick and timber, shingle and cement, without at least studying how a few sturdy houses have been put together, without examining the way a door is hung, a lintel set in place, windows cast, how to pitch and raise a roof, angle the walls, lay flooring, not to mention seeing to the electricity, plumbing, heat ducts . . .

Never having studied such matters a person might succeed, on superficial observation and surmisal, in constructing some semblance of a house, but not likely one that stands straight and flush, with doors that shut tightly, free of drafts and secure against the weather. A novel written in similar ignorance is more than likely to be subject to similar flaws — a lopsided, insecure structure that offers little shelter and is liable to collapse on your head at any moment.

When I was starting out, I took what undergraduate courses were available to me. My first help was the advice of my freshman college composition professor at C.C.N.Y. to keep a journal in order to loosen up my style and to try to write something in it every day, even if only a single sentence. “And then,” he said, “in a year or two, who knows? You might even have a book.” Good bait for me. I was seventeen, and four years of keeping a journal — sometimes just a sentence or two, sometimes many pages, sometimes with gaps of weeks or even months — did indeed get me in the habit of writing and writing freely. To learn to write freely is important.

Next I took a course with Edward Hoagland which included individual writing conferences, maybe four or five twenty-minute sessions. These brief meetings resulted in major progress. That was after a few years wandering alone in the wilderness, so to speak, hitch hiking around the United States in the mid-sixties as I thought Jack Kerouac would have wanted me to do, scribbling in my journals (which I carried around in an attaché case ultimately stolen from me in San Francisco — I cannot help but pity the poor junky when he discovered the contents of the alluring stolen case, pages of ringbound scribble.)

What Hoagland did in conference was essentially a commented line-editing. I had learned from my journals to write freely; I was helped by him to rein it in, slice away the excess. I sat beside him and watched him run his pen over my lines, crossing out words, phrases, sentences, saying things like, “You are including every fucking detail!” That single statement broke ice for me because I was ready for it. “This is purple prose,” he said another time about a piece I had thought lucious as Dylan Thomas’s fiction. “Horribly overwritten.” Uncomfortable as they sometimes were, those few small lessons were worth gold to me and moved me sufficiently forward to win a three-year writing grant shortly after finishing his course.

Then I dropped out of college for the second time and took a few independent workshops, but I never stayed for long — my experience of them was a bunch of people who didn’t know what they were doing running off at the mouth under the weak leadership of slightly accomplished writers. Rightly or wrongly, I felt they were offering bad advice that would only confuse my search. Still, I didn’t believe in myself and I didn’t know what to do; the only thing I knew was that I had to write — in any event I kept coming back to it.

I wish that someone at that time had told me to read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a book I urge all of my students to read now. In it, he says things like:

“There is no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them . . . I learn daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!”

And quoting his own mentor, Rodin: “It is necessary always to work.”

And, “Prose needs to be but like a cathedral: there one is truly without a name, without ambition, without help: on scaffoldings alone with one’s consciousness.”

And, “Works of art are of an infinite loneliness,” and “in one creative thought a thousand forgotten nights of love revive,” and “. . . go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.”

If you feel that you could live without writing, he said, then you must not attempt it at all. But even to discover that is a great discovery.

I once taught in a workshop where I tried to convey that message, and the program director called me aside to ask that I refrain from discouraging students. To attend a workshop that fears and attempts to sidestep that solitary query is a waste of time.

“Why,” Rilke asked, “do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon you?”

You can buy that Rilke book from W.W. Norton in a splendid translation by M.D. Herter Norton for $6.95, and it is worth a thousand dollars worth of workshops — more, far more.

I wish I had had it when I was twenty-five. I did, however, have the good advice of Alexander Blackburn, then editor of Writer’s Forum in Colorado; he said simply, in an open letter to young writers, “If you can quit, probably you should.” Valuable advice to me in my twenties because it helped me recognize I could not quit.

You may ask what help that is if one cannot quit anyway, but recognizing the fact that one cannot quit and going on is not the same as expending spirit on a vain wish to quit that which has irrevocably chosen you. In his epic lament on the death of Dylan Thomas, Kenneth Rexroth bemoans the manner in which the poetic instinct in our society is quashed rather than nourished: “How many, on the advice of their analysts, decided a business career would be best after all?”

Sometimes I believe the answer to that question is none. For a poet cannot make that choice; if a poet needs the money, he or she will find room for both — like T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, so many others. And no workshop of any seriousness has any business discouraging its participants from considering the ultimate: Am I really a writer? Must I write?

Akin to Rexroth’s question, though more illuminating I think, is a statement by Saul Bellow: “The old philosophy distinguished between knowledge achieved by effort (ratio) and knowledge received (intellectus) by the listening soul that can hear the essence of things and comes to understand the marvelous. But this calls for unusual strength of soul. The more so since society claims more and more and more of your inner self and infects you within its restlessness. It trains you in distraction, colonizes consciousness as fast as consciousness advances. The true poise, that of contemplation or imagination, sits right on the border of sleeping and dreaming.”

But I am not here to knock the ratio of workshops. I am here to sort through what I know of them and share my knowledge of them, such as it is. And to say that attending an MFA program, when I was ready for it, made all the difference for me as a writer. As an MFA student, I had the opportunity to work and talk with great and dedicated teachers like Gordon Weaver, Gladys Swan, André Dubus, W.D. Wetherell, Jack Myers, and to spend hours upon hours discussing craft and art with fellow seekers. The work in the classroom and workshop sessions and the lectures were important, but the talk that went on afterwards, often into the wee hours of what might otherwise have been a dark night of the soul, was equally so. And I began to find my way, began to find the place I sought and, finally, to achieve that most advantageous place of learning about writing — the place of the writing teacher.

I have taught various forms of workshops from the one-time one-hour session to sessions lasting from a weekend to a month, sessions where the participants live together for a fortnight, immersing themselves in the writing life all the waking hours of the day and night and sessions where people come to class for a few hours and go home until the next day. I’ve taught by writing exercises, one-on-one conferences, group-run as opposed to leader-directed workshops, in junior college, undergraduate, and master’s and PhD degree writing programs, by delivering a series of craft lectures, and in programs independent of any university, attended sometimes by people who have already achieved a considerable level of artistic accomplishment — some who have already published one or more books, but who have run aground and need a shoulder to nudge them back to the water. I have team-taught with brilliant colleagues — Robie Macauley, Gordon Weaver, Alexandra Marshall, Pamela Painter, James Carroll, Askold Melnyczuk, Alexandra Johnson —
and I have had the benefit of brilliant students in my workshops.

What is best?

A lot depends on how much time you have, how much money, how long and successfully you have been writing.

How much time and money you have only you can answer. The question of how successfully you have been writing is more difficult, though not impossible to answer. If you are working with serious commitment, intensely, devoting a reasonable amount of time at least a couple or more times a week to a deep and intense reading of good writing and a deep and intense attempt to ignite the source of language within you, you will find yourself approaching the place where your stories are. And I believe that when you feel yourself near that place is when you will begin to profit most from guidance.

It is rather like hunting for amber on the beach. Sometimes you find pretty little yellow pebbles that you want very much to believe are amber, even though in your heart you know they are not amber, but mere glittery bits of dead stone. But the value of those pretty little yellow stones is that you do learn to know that they are not amber, to know that which is not amber. And then suddenly, as if by chance, you find a real piece of amber, and you have no doubt. You can tell by the way the light strikes and illuminates it, by its elegant lightness in your palm, by its irregular shape and texture (as opposed to the dull smoothness of stone), by the feel of it against your fingertips, by the sound it makes when you tap it against your tooth — not hard and sharp like stones, but the quiet sound of a thing that was once alive, a thing that gives a bit, and when you peer into it, you see its mysterious glow, sometimes even the spectre of ancient fossils trapped within — a chip of ancient
history, or even a fistful of it.

My first three published stories, which came after many pieces of worthless dross (worthless except that I learned a little something from each of them, when I was able to suspend my fear of failure sufficiently to receive the lesson), were like those pretty little yellow pebbles. The fourth one was amber, and I had no doubt — I knew as I wrote it that it was coming from the place in me I had searched so long for, the place where the stories I could write were, the stories that it seems I was meant to write. You know when you are there.

The first time you find and truly begin to know that place, I believe , is when you really are ready to benefit from a good workshop or tutorial. Workshops and courses and lessons and books on craft and the study of masters can help lead you to that moment if you are willing to suspend your fear and self-doubt sufficiently to learn the lessons you can only learn from your failed stories, from stooping on the beach to pick up those pebbles which are not the real thing but which — by scrutinizing them — help prepare you, by a process of elimination, to identify what is the real thing when you find it, that recognizing a flaw in what you are writing is not a failure, but a
success, occasion for joy.

What am I getting at here in more concrete terms, I think — though it is difficult to be concrete about a process as slipperily alive and multifaceted as writing — is what I attempt to teach in my workshops and what the most alert workshop participants are seeking to learn. We walk around and around and around it, this thing that is once so enormous and so infinitesimally minute we fail to see it, or which is so cunningly and richly ordinary we walk right past it.

My aim as a workshop leader is not to help a participant to successfully complete a given piece of writing, but to help her or him find the way into the process. To publish one story, encouraging and pleasant as that may be, is not the key; the key is to find the place in you where the stories are that you can write, want to write, even need to write. The thing is not merely to get there and bring back a single story, not to find a single piece of glowing amber, but to learn to recognize the glow, to study the route to the place of the stories so that you can find your way back there again, even if the walls of the tunnel have caved in behind you on your way out.

It is learning to accept and grasp the imagination as a faculty while at the same time developing your craft so that the skills become second nature and are instantly available to be placed at the disposal of your imagination when it sends for them. Your craft is the tools you need to shore up the tunnel as it caves in, so you can go on.

Thus the question of what sort of workshop or writing course you take is probably less important than your own readiness judiciously to receive that which helps you find the inner path to your own source, judiciously to reject that which does not, and intensely to focus on the lessons of craft available from all the great masters who have come before us.

So: You want to study writing. What should you do? Write. Read the masters. Read the poets. Be patient; time is nothing. Study. Listen. Allow yourself to fail; and to learn the lessons your own failure affords you. Listen to the advice of your peers and of your teachers, but listen judiciously, select that which might be of use, humbly reject that which is not. Attend courses, workshops, lectures, readings. Talk, intoxicate yourself on talk about the craft and the art. As Jack Kerouac suggested, Write long wild letters about it all, read long wild letters about it with an open heart.

Ask yourself if you really must write, and if the answer is yes, receive that blessing and recognize that you have chosen yourself for the study of a lifetime.

Realism & Other Illusions:
Essays on the Craft of Fiction

copyright ©2002

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Thomas E. Kennedy is the author of many books, including Realism & Other Illusions: Essays on the Craft of Fiction, The Literary Traveler with Walter Cummins, and the recent COPENHAGEN QUARTET, a quartet of novels written in four different styles about the four seasons of the Danish capital, all published by Wynkin de Worde.