Can We Teach Someone How to Write?: A Report from One MFA Program

Last night was a glorious evening for The Ohio State University MFA Program, where I teach. We held our end-of-the-year gala celebration for our graduating students. It was an evening of fancy clothes and stunning readings. A public performance of the excellent poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction that those receiving their degrees have written. Our yearly tradition of sending our grads off in style, each of them introduced by their thesis director with lavish praise in abundance. It was grand to see so many of our former students in the audience, our extended family returning to welcome the current grads to their fold. Just a truly wonderful evening all the way around.

I love to watch young writers find their voice(s) and their material. I love to see them writing with confidence about the things they were meant to take on, the material that is theirs and theirs alone. That’s what I saw from each and every graduate who read last  night, a series of open and honest explorations done in distinct voices. I saw writers who, after three years of study and practice, knew themselves a little better, owned their material a bit more forcefully, and spoke of it in voices that were more genuine than they’d ever been.

Can we teach someone how to write? That question comes up quite often within the community of folks who do exactly that for their livelihood, and I’m always a little puzzled when the answer is sometimes no.

Of course, we can teach someone how to write. We do it each year in our workshops, our literature seminars, our thesis directing, our informal conversations in this place or that, and in writing of our own. We teach technique, we teach the habits of the process and the work ethic that they require. I happen to believe that we can also teach students how to adjust their vision so that they more readily note the contradictions and complexities of the world around them. I believe we can encourage them to think in terms of opposites so they see the plurality of any one character or situation. We do it by talking about published work that does exactly that and by pointing out what a writer has done to make the vision of that story, poem, essay, novel more deeply felt and more multi-layered with different levels of emotion and intellect, often contradictory in nature.

Not only that, we can show students how such layers are present in their own drafts, the opposites just waiting for a tweak of technique here or there, so they can emerge in all their  glory. Of course, it’s up to the student to learn the moves of craft that allow the richest artistic expression of the way they see the world in all its complexity, and we can’t discount the limits of any single writer’s imagination. That spark of invention has to set the writer’s toolbox ablaze so the writing will be white-hot. A work will only be as richly textured as the range of a writer’s imagination will allow. All in all, though, after nearly thirty years of teaching writing workshops, I’m still convinced that writing programs can help folks get to where they need to be with their art. I saw abundant evidence that such is the case last night when our marvelous graduates stepped up to the microphone and read work that came from the way they, and only they, can see the world. Work that will abide because it is at once theirs and ours at the same time. The individual vision making a happy union with technical proficiency to make something on the page that endures because it is both particular and universal, because it has that ring of truth.

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