National Book Award for Fiction winner Robert Stone contends that “You can take undergraduates and guide them. You can tell them what works and what doesn’t. But unfortunately, you can’t teach anyone to write. It comes from God.” I would disagree; it would be hypocritical of me to agree since I have taught writing off and on since 1969. Whether it be fiction or nonfiction, novel or essay, writers can improve and prosper with experiences that foster creativity and develop an interest in reading/writing; with a knowledgeable, experienced, and creative teacher; and with opportunities and a desire to develop skills.
The background for a competent writer begins at an early age. We all have the capacity to be creative in some way, but that needs to be cultivated when we are young. Giving kids experiences that allow them to express themselves in a variety of ways leads them to choose what triggers are meaningful for them. There are inspiring toys that teach creativity; there are life experiences, such as visits to museums with hands-on activities; or there are playful experiments with materials and words that challenge growing minds. It’s true that children do not have equal opportunities that encourage creativity, but when children reach school age, hopefully, they meet teachers who offer them creativity-building activities.
From early elementary through college, a skilled teacher can instill a love of writing and reading, which is the foundation for future writers. Assignments that challenge and titillate are essential to building ingenuity. For example, instead of a teacher asking students to write about their weekend, he/she might tell students that there are lovable dragons and fierce dragons, now describe another kind of dragon. Getting students to read means offering them materials that are fun and exciting. From reading through the years of their formal education, students observe techniques in sentence construction, composition structure, and writing techniques, and they can also expand their vocabulary. A competent and creative teacher will not slash a student’s written work to pieces but will find the things that a student does well and on which they can build. A few specific suggestions on techniques that will improve a student’s writing will go further than a paper covered in red corrections.
A final facet of learning to write is opportunity and desire. Young people need opportunities to write that expand across their course curriculum. They should be writing in their history and science classes. They should be writing letters and thank you notes. They should be writing essays and creative fiction. Many students do not like studying grammar and vocabulary, but these should be creatively incorporated into their education. Those with a desire to write will embrace the opportunities and seek outlets for their creative needs.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner once said that “writing can be taught—but not to everybody.” So, can anyone become a great writer? Let’s face it: not everyone even wants to write. Among those who like to write, some will show a proclivity to advanced technique and creativity. Can writing skills be developed? Yes, everyone can benefit from studying writing skills, and it’s especially true when determination and desire are present.
Diane Repass is a retired tenured assistant professor
from The University of Dubuque and now a beloved
writer for Plaid Swan Inc. She received her M.A. from
The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.