What Makes a Writer


Last month there was another article in Poets & Writers about whether or not creative writing can be taught. In it, Gregory Spatz told the story of a student who came in writing cliché material, worked hard in his MFA program, and ended up publishing a book of short stories…so voila, the answer is yes, creative writing can be taught!

It makes sense that this kind of article would show up in the annual MFA issue, along with program rankings and short articles about various new programs. There’s always an article like this somewhere; we can’t seem to stop asking whether good writing is the result of talent or hard work. Gregory Spatz does argue that writing can be taught, but he also ended his article with a list of four character traits that helped this student to be successful: “dedication, desire, drive, and discipline.” Desire and drive are the same thing; dedication and discipline are pretty much the same thing, so in the end, according to Spatz, there are two main factors deciding whether or not you can write: you have to want it, and you have to work hard.

People buy the MFA issue and read those articles because they want to know if a studio master’s degree in writing is the right choice for them; if it will be worth the time and money and result in better writing. There’s the ongoing debate, which has its moments of eruption on the internet, about whether getting an MFA actually improves your writing, or turns it into boring, cliché literary fiction, or whether you need an MFA to get fellowships and publications, and really, the only answer to either of these questions is, it depends on you. The best answer I’ve heard to the question of what an MFA does for you is that it speeds up the process. If you want to be a writer, and you’re working hard at reading and writing, and you’re getting honest feedback and revising, you might improve. But if you’re doing all that in an environment where you are given time to write, and you write a lot, and the feedback you get is from professors and students who know what they’re talking about, you might improve faster. So, is that the place where you want to spend your time and get your feedback?

I get tired of that debate about what kind of fiction MFA programs “produce”. Teachers and programs don’t produce writers. Writers produce writing, and if you’re complaining that most of the writing by MFA graduates is mediocre, well, I have news for you: most writing is mediocre! While we should be skeptical of the institutionalization of art, the idea of the individual genius writing on his own is equally dangerous. Someone has to decide what counts as genius, and geniuses have generally had gifts of money and time that allowed them to hone their creative gifts, which is to say that those deemed genius are usually privileged. What I like about MFA programs is the possibility for diversity; the idea that anyone can be accepted for his/her potential as a writer and then given funding to read and write.

People also get upset because having MFA programs for writers creates a system in which some writers can be seen as more legitimate than others. The same debates still rage for visual artists and musicians. Maybe, for some editors and programs, seeing that someone has a degree makes a difference, but I would say the most important factor in any decision is always the writing. I see flat, uncertain writing from MFA graduates all of the time; I  also see compelling, original writing from people who don’t list MFA programs in their cover letters. And the opposite is true for each. I agree with Spatz that writing is not pure talent or pure teaching; it’s some combination of characteristics in the writer’s personality that work to help him/her learn. I’d also like to expand that list just a bit, beyond desire and discipline, because I think there’s more to it than wanting to write and working hard.

Imagination. When people speak of talent in creative writers, they may talk about a finely honed sentence or line of a poem, but I think the root of it is always the writer’s imagination. Imagination is a part of the unconscious that we all have access to, and maybe some people have more access to it, or they tap into it more. To demonstrate imagination in writing requires risk taking; it requires thinking differently from other people and presenting bold ideas that very well may fail. It’s key to good creative writing because it is the creativity, that raw talent that shines through. I know that teachers can teach reading, writing, and revision strategies, and I know that hard work can produce better writing, but creativity comes from within.

Humility. You have two ears and one mouth; use them accordingly. Humility is important for accepting feedback and revising, for checking the ego while writing, and for receiving numerous rejections from magazines and publishers. Humility is the place from which dedication comes. Humble writers read more than they write and learn from the books they read. They continue writing because they are not yet satisfied. Humility means being wary of praise and self-congratulations, and it means being willing to ditch failed work and start fresh. Being open to growth and improvement as a writer often means pushing the ego out of the way. That said, you need to be just foolhardy enough to attempt risky projects in the face of failure.

Obsession. You have to be obsessed. I mean, you have to be batshit crazy about sitting alone at your desk for hours and just making things up, and then revising those things over and over. Desire and drive are much too mild to cover this one. Obsession means needing it even when it doesn’t make you happy, and refusing to stop even if you’ve crossed the threshold of humility and gone straight to despair, which, like arrogance, can be a trap. But, short of clinical depression, your obsession should be able to drag you out of that discouraged place and get you to start over, simply because you have to. This is also where perfectionism and dedication come in, because the willingness to work comes from an obsession with making the work better.

These are the things that cannot be taught. Like Spatz, I want to argue that creative writing can be taught like any other subject, but I always end up arguing that it is something in the personality; it is some particular combination of qualities that make people pursue writing. Because, in the view of the rest of the rational, logical world, writing is crazy. It’s nuts to spend hours making up stories that, in all likelihood, very few people will ever read. It’s nuts to go into any kind of debt for a master’s degree that, in all likelihood, will not result in a related career. It’s a fool’s errand. So, to do it and do it well, maybe you just have to be that particular brand of fool.

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