Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Teaching and Learning

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about education, something that is eventually going to find its way to my blog, though probably not at Mad Genius.

I was thinking how for the first time I disagreed with Terry Pratchett’s “overt nudge” at the end of I Shall Wear Midnight. Oh, not on the idea that the formation of schools is a good thing – in general, assuming schools that actually function – but the idea that the important thing is to “teach people to think.”

Over the last few years I’ve become convinced this doesn’t work. I don’t know if it’s possible to teach people to think. It is an unpleasant activity that most humans would prefer not to engage. In fact, most humans are far more willing to die than to engage their brains. (Examples would stray into demagoguery, because to support all of them would take months of posts. But if you look around you, you’ll find examples aplenty.) Because no one knows how to teach it, it quickly becomes “teaching how to think” which we do know how to do. It’s called indoctrination.

So what can you do, instead? Isn’t it essential to have a citizenry who can think? And, to get to the main point of this post, isn’t it essential to have writers who can write and engage the reading public – at least if we want to continue the writing of fiction as a viable career?

Yeah. Both of those are essential. So, what do you do?

Well, when I posted a general rumble of dissatisfaction in a comment one of my co-bloggers at Classical Values said he’d been collecting McGuffey (for those not in the US those were the prevalent readers a hundred years ago) readers and that he favored educating kids for the nineteenth century. I got to thinking about it in that light. What those readers taught was skills with which to acquire knowledge: reading, writing, solid vocabulary, and maybe a few generally immutable facts around the world (if giraffes stop being quadrupedes or Antarctic moves, then we have a problem.) And then it left the procuring of information to the pupil that is armed that way. Because you can’t teach or force thinking, you can only give someone the tools with which to do it, then leave them alone to find their own way.

(Instead, in the US at least, we’re making our kids into Tantalus – amid a river of information from which their lack of preparedness or worse their indoctrination [not at Mad Genius, but I’ll provide links to this at later posts at my blog and CV] prevents them from slaking their thirst.)

I think the same issue pertains to teaching writing. You can’t teach writing – no one can – but you can learn it.

First let me start from where I started. I started with the idea of “immanent writing”. There was this thing called “talent” and either you had it or you didn’t. If you didn’t, you might struggle your whole life and never, ever, ever be a good writer.

I find this idea is not unusual and it is best reflected in the raw beginner who comes to me clutching a few pages and hoping I can tell him if he’s “got” it.

An agent who shall remain nameless sent me a rejection slip... fifteen years ago saying the problem was that I lacked a sense of timing and unfortunately timing was something that couldn’t be taught or learned, but inherent to the person. So it was his sad duty to tell me I’d never be published.

The truly odd thing is that looking back at that particular novel, it had problems out the wazoo (a place in OZ, Kate assures me.) Timing problems, though, it didn’t have. My first published set of books arguably had it – partly because I was trying to fix a problem that didn’t exist – but that one, no way.

The bad news is that I can’t tell you talent doesn’t exist. It does. Though in all my years of teaching writing I’ve only found one person who had almost all the skills needed to write a novel “for free” without practicing for years. Note the *almost*. That person hasn’t finished his first novel – which is not unusual. In fact, I’ve found over time that the closer you are to having it all given to you for free, the most likely you’ll never acquire the rest. And it’s not a matter of being a slacker, either, or lacking drive. It’s because, never having had to work for it, you don’t know how to do it.

(And please, trust me, I know of what I speak. Take me for instance, I got characters for free. I can engage you with a character in three lines. The problem is that after that I just had my characters meander around aimlessly because I had clue zero how to plot – or how to learn to plot. As near as three years ago, a professional colleague and friend mistook the discrepancy between my character creation skill and my plotting skill as a lack of interest in what I was writing. And he made it clear it wasn’t that anything was, by itself, bad, but that one was so much better than the other. And I think I’m now at more than average plotting skill – I hope, I worked hard enough for it – but there’s still a gulf between it and character creation ability.)

The GOOD news is that you don’t need talent – not a drop, smidgen or particle of it – to learn to write. How good your final product is might depend on how talented you are, but that is highly subjective. What I consider literary ambrosia is another person’s dog’s meat. What hits the bestseller’s list is often neither but that vast mushy middle that just happens to have a hook that attracts the – mostly non-reading – public.

The bad news again is that no one can teach you to write. Those who try end up doing what those who try to teach you to think do – they end up trying to teach you WHAT to write. (We’ve all heard of writing workshops that range from consciousness-raising sessions that make you feel your opinions are unacceptable to doctrinaire indoctrination about the "one way to write.", and do I TRULY need to recount all the internet gurus who have forbidden whole classes of grammatical parts: adjectives, adverbs and, in one mind-blowing instance, articles?)

The one set of workshops I attended (I’m going to blow the name, I usually do – Oregon Professional Writers Workshop? – taught by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith concentrated on process, which is as close as you can get to teaching writing. What do I mean by that? Well, they concentrated on making you write and write again, under various kinds of pressure, and what you wrote MOSTLY got critiqued on “it grabs” or “it doesn’t.”

They kept telling us to trust the process and, of course, I had no idea how to, because I THOUGHT that everything was set in this mysterious “talent.” But reading, writing, looking at things others had written in a critical light, did turn out to be a process that allowed me to learn to write without being taught. Not that I’m done yet, not by miles.

I’ve since tried to teach many people, some more overtly than others. (Some people are very resistant to being taught and you have to go around their defenses for them to learn anything.) Results are mixed. Three components seem to be essential to be able to learn to write.

One – you must be willing to read other works, and not just with a reader’s eye, but with a critical eye as well. Absent that and absent a solid habit of reading (or listening, or otherwise absorbing story) for pleasure, chances are you can’t teach yourself to write.

Two – you must be willing to write and write and write again. Not the same piece, but many pieces. Depending on how far you have to go, more or less concentrated effort might be needed.

Three – you must be able to both critique yourself and understand how others will perceive your work. A good way of putting this is “you must learn to play chess with yourself.” You must never lose touch of either what you’re trying to convey or how other people will perceive it. (Take that novel above. It did NOT have timing issues, but it was set in a proto-Greek civilization and the main character was the body-slave of the home owner who was Not portrayed unsympathetically. I was so far up my own historical feed tube that I didn’t realize other people would go “pedophilia, ick,” until a couple of years ago – this despite my having run into the same issue with my short story Thirst. And no, it’s no use at all arguing that maturity rates of the ancient world were different and that a fourteen year old then might have the mental maturity of a thirty year old today. I’d already hit the “pedophilia, ick” switch and lost the reader.)

Number three is the one most often lacking, (number two the next most likely, and number one exists too, yes.) It is a difficult skill. When you read your own work, you see all sorts of emotions and nuances that you forgot to put down. Also, the reverse – you’ll miss how a turn of phrase or a scene you threw in because it sounded cool, will be interpreted by a reader who doesn’t know that world/place/people as you do. (In the novel above, again, I described the home-owner and domain-holder as brutal looking, because in my head, he was. He was also a gentle and nurturing personality. SURELY you’ve met people like that? I have. But I started by describing his features. And by page eight I got back critiques saying “why is the villain being so nice?” Yeah, there are ways of doing this and I know them now, but back then I didn’t even know there WAS an issue.) The tendency of most writers, when told there is something lacking or something misleading is to circle the wagons and go into “they called my baby ugly and said I dressed it funny.” Yes, most writers. Though some of us have learned to be almost too far the other way because we’re afraid of dismissing valid criticism out of hand. Learning to evaluate criticism is part of learning to play chess with yourself.

For most people taking a break from the story will do. For me, it comes in two modes. Either I’m hyper aware of the story every second I’m writing OR if it’s something so close to my blind spots (but it’s historical! Being probably my main one) that it’s completely invisible, letting SEVERAL YEARS pass. As you can tell, it’s better to have the first than the last, but again I don’t know how to teach it – As with thinking, you only have to learn it. And as with thinking, it IS a painful process most people would rather avoid altogether.

So, what ways have you devised to learn to play chess with yourself? Did you ever believe that talent was all? Do you know of anyone who is successful on “talent alone”?

*crossposted at Classical Values and According To Hoyt*


MataPam said...

Established writers may sound incredibly talented, but dig into their past and you find them as teenagers writing Star Trek Fan Fic.

I think reading and writing is handled by the brain with the same instinctive ability to learn languages that results in speach. It's taught deliberately, but at some point the brain has picked up the basics and it's just experience that makes one either borderline illiterate or brilliant.

You can join Toastmasters, or the high school debate team, take acting lessons--or speach therepy. For writng, the ladder up is much the same--English and literature and creative writing classes.

I think it's all a matter of wanting to put in the effort, and personality factors, such as being shy makes one less likely to be proficent in speach, but better in reading, as displacement socialization.

Writing as a professional requires a whole bag of analysis tools, as you say. In fact several bags. I'm having to lock up my novel writing habits in order to assemble a tool kit for writing short stories.

And yes, resisting all the way!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


AH! I'll have you know I got PAID for my Star Trek Fan Fic (Strange New Worlds III -- story If I lose thee.

twittertales said...

When I get to the point where I hate the book, and every word sounds wrong and awkward, and I have no emotions left except disgust - that's useful because I can look at a sentence and (instead of thinking, "Boy, what a great sentence!") say: "That sentence is establishing character. That one adds sensory detail." and I can check, piece by piece, that all the necessary elements are represented.

Louise Curtis

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Unfortunately when I get like that, I just want to cut everything and start again. Sometimes great fortitude of mind is needed, when a book is due and I can't give it distance (like now.) For me (ymmv) it's as bad a phase as "I love it." But other people might do better.

Stephen Simmons said...

For me, the time I spent on stage as a teenager (including the show with five separate cameo roles) helps a LOT. From age ten I've been learning to "stand next to myself" to analyze what the audience would get out of what I was doing, rather than just *assuming* they'll see/hear/feel what I intend them to. It isn't foolproof, but I find that it seems to help. I still don't think it's any substitute for continuing my search for effective first-readers, though.

The "ick-threshold" factor you talked about is a VERY important consideration. I have a bone-deep, reflexive problem with vampire stories (one of my few utterly incurable religious prejudices). I was *devouring* Butcher's "Dresden Files" series, until he crossed that line ... stopped in mid-book, and that was that. Which annoyed the crap out of me, because I REALLY like Harry and Bob and Murphy ...

Talent ... I think, assuming they possess the requisite minimum baseline intelligence, that anyone can learn to do anything, if the want it badly enough. But anything that requires creativity can't be "taught". You could teach me about paints and tectures and brushes and stroke-techniques, etc ... but you can't teach me to CREATE visual art. Either I develop the ability to envision new pictures and then use those mechanical skills to produce them, or not. Similarly, I can learn the *mechanics* of grammar and style and punctuation, but I can't LEARN how to come up with new ideas.

Kate Paulk said...

The way I see it, talent is rather like ore. It's there, it's valuable, but you have to refine it and shape it for it to really come into its own. When the ore in question is a honking great nugget of gold, there's not much that needs to be done with it, but when you're talking about raw gemstones or metal ores, there's a lot of skill that has to be applied before you get something shiny and pretty like a diamond, or useful like a stainless steel cutlery set.

The talent I've got is the ore. The nature and shape of that talent determines whether I'll be making cutlery or diamonds. The skills I learn and apply actually do the shaping - and if I get it wrong, I can ruin the ore altogether. At which point the analogy falls apart, of course.

Some of the techniques I've used are the things I outlined in my post a few weeks back about practice pieces: picking a single thing to focus on, and writing practice pieces looking solely at improving that one aspect of what I'm writing. Another tool is to keep in mind - always - that when you're getting critique the goal is to improve the story. It is not a personal attack (I have, alas, known people who couldn't make that distinction).

Also - if most of the people who see it comment on something similar, chance are there's a problem there. They might not identify the actual problem, but they've identified something that's off.

Watch people and listen to them. It's not just that people watching generates untold story ideas, it's that you can pick up a very good notion of what people in general feel about things by observation and listening.

If you park yourself in the mall and every conversation you hear includes some reference to "those evil/horrible/bad/mean insurance companies" you're going to have to do a lot of legwork to make your thriller about someone defrauding an insurance company work (assuming the person doing the defrauding is the villain). It might not be doable.

If everyone and their dog thinks glasses didn't happen until less than 100 years ago, Benjamin Franklin's portraits notwithstanding, you'll have trouble with your Civil War (US or England - it doesn't matter which in this example) historical novel where the main character needs glasses.

And - much as I hate to say it because I cringe at doing this myself - what is shown in TV and movies (and more to the point, what isn't shown) is a pretty decent thumbnail guide to where the cultural ick-buttons tend to lie. Ignore them at your peril. And your continued unpublishedness.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Well, then, I'm in the midst of selling a series you REALLY won't like (G).

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Ore-- apt analogy. Also on watching TV as a cultural guideline. Ditto, used to be, reading mags or even perusing them in the checkout line.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Insightful post, Sarah.

I wish we could teach people to think, but you're right. It's much easier to have a knee-jerk reaction than to analyse why something has gone wrong and fix it.

Ore - I like that analogy, Kate.

There's always a lot of dross around the ore and you have to get rid of it to find the good stuff.