Can good writing be taught?

The week before I graduated high school I received a letter in the mail from my fifth grade self. My librarian had had us write them in our final days of elementary school and she saved them in her attic for seven years before sending a friendly reminder of the innocents we used to be. Of course the letter was a chaotic clustering where I had scrawled things like,  “DO YOU HAVE A BOYFRIEND YET?” (no) or “EAT CHEESE FOREVER” (um…okay?). I laughed at how simple life had been and how different my perspective on life had become post-puberty. However one of the last things I had written to myself struck me dumb: almost sideways in the margins I had written “PS. ARE YOU A REAL WRITER YET?” The fact that this aspiration had stayed consistent for such a long period of time in my life seemed like a sign from a higher authority. Never mind that in the twelfth grade my version of a higher authority was Justin Bieber, but it still seemed important.

At this point in my writing career I still had it in my head that I was destined to be the next J.K. Rowling even though I could only stay focused long enough to write half of a short story. I thought I was the epitome of angsty artistic energy and that I would dazzle the UConn creative writing department with my raw talent and untapped potential. Then I met Bruce. He not only read us poetry that left the class silent (no one was ever sure if we were collectively confused or deep in thought) but also forced us to challenge ourselves. It was the first class where I was encouraged to not follow the prompt: Bruce doesn’t care about the assignments as long as we’re writing things that are interesting.

My first creative writing class taught me much more than how to edit my work, it taught me how to think critically. It taught me to read poetry as more than just assigned reading; it demystified poetry and made it into something I almost need to do. I learned how to take my writing and myself seriously, but did I learn how to write? Is writing a skill that is taught or is it simply honed?

In The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo he writes, “I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry writing class. You’ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write. At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say something that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go. Don’t start arguments. They are futile and take us away from our purpose. As Yeats noted, your important arguments are with yourself. If you don’t agree with me, don’t listen. Think about something else.”

It is this sentiment I think that captures my experiences with creative writing and the importance of these classes. “Good writing” is often judged by a grade or whether or not something has been published, but I think it is even simpler than that. Isn’t good writing the kind that you write not with a goal of being published, but in order to figure out what the hell is going on in your head? My most successful writing has been the kind that has burst out of my fingertips, it has taught me things about myself, about my thoughts and the way I perceive things. I want to write because I want to see all of the ways I can bend language, I want to see if I can finally shove the square peg into the round hole. Writing shouldn’t be about becoming the next J.K. Rowling, it should be because you have to, over and over again, everyday.


Am I wrong? What do you think?


Richard Hugo's amazing book.
Richard Hugo’s amazing book.
I was able to find half of my fifth grade letter from an old instagram post.
I was able to find half of my fifth grade letter from an old instagram post.

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