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 (hi Eric!) 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 in later articles 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, my friend 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 those that teach the one correct 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.

*crossposted at According To Hoyt and Mad Genius Club (Writers Division.)*

posted by Sarah on 02.02.11 at 07:07 AM


I have gone back in the last 24 hours and reread my (revised) 2005 NaNoWriMo novel. It's taken me that long to be able to see the flaws (and the typos, and grammar goofs) and reflect on what needs to change and how I've changed as a writer.

Time/maturity are important, but I think the rewrite model is probably the best one to learn how to write.

Kizmet   ·  February 2, 2011 11:34 AM

As a nuke instructor, I always said that in addition to the basic principles, systemic knowledge, and coaching through watchstanding, etc., that it's my job to teach you how to teach yourself. We did this the very hands-on way, but the point was to get people used to the idea of learning to read the manuals, and applying the knowledge in them, because you don't always have someone in the division who's rolled out a T-hull main engine bearing when one fails in the middle of the atlantic on Christmas eve....

Darius   ·  February 2, 2011 4:47 PM

I don't write stories (well, not fiction), so my perspective may be a bit different.

I agree that #3 may be the most difficult. #1 - well, I can't imagine a write that doesn't read - reading critically is an extension of that. #2 - well, if you can't do that - do something else.

But, reading your own work "as someone else" - that's difficult. For me, as for Kizmet, it's at least partly a matter of time. Not quite as long a time as 2005 to now. But I need time to 'forget' what I wrote before I can really look at it again. Even just in a proofreading mode - I can't see my own typos and other errors right after I've written something. Because I *know* what I meant and that's what I'm reading.

Kathy Kinsley   ·  February 2, 2011 6:06 PM

I got low grades (and once flunked) English in high school. The teacher would ask for a 20 page paper and I could say everything I wanted in 4 pages if I stretched it. And I was terrible with people.

And then came the FIDOnet and sending e-mails and answering threads (kind of a USENET with a 3 day delay) on a high speed (56,000 baud on a POTS line) modem. And brevity was considered very useful. And then came blogging. My element had found me.

M. Simon   ·  February 3, 2011 2:28 PM

My younger kid is just relentlessly logical. He's a math/visual genius and seems to instinctively design machines/structures. He's not, however, very verbal. I mean, he's adequate and often competent (depends on how excited he is) but not lyrical or... you know...

I find -- perhaps because of more women teachers? -- that verbal fluency is HIGHLY valued in schools these days, probably explaining why fewer boys make it to college since it's a relatively lower ability in boys than girls.

Sarah   ·  February 4, 2011 12:43 PM

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