What Dorothy Parker doesn’t say in this famous quote is that if you opt not to shoot aspiring writers, and if they already have a copy of The Elements of Style, the third gift you should offer them is a good teacher.
Writing, they say, cannot be learned in a classroom. I’d consider this a debate topic rather than a truism. Certainly, a great many of the writing classes I’ve taken have been disappointing. I learned more from my literature modules in DCU when I was studying for my BA than I ever did at a creative writing seminar. There are exceptions, though. The difficulty seems to be that, in general, good writers don’t know how to teach, and decent teachers don’t know how to write. If you find someone who excels in both, then listen up, because they can change your world.
As you may have guessed, I recently started teaching a creative writing class. Before I signed up I spent a lot of time thinking about what makes for an ideal tutor. I cannot speak for anyone else, but here is what I look for:
The ideal writing instructor should have a proven track record in the sort of writing I want to do. It can be difficult to glean pertinent morsels about the literary short story if the class is geared towards science fiction writing, for instance. That said, I once attended a series of classes aimed particularly at romance novelists. It wasn’t my forte, but it was the only game in town. However, the panel of instructors were smart enough to bring experts in crime detection, history, and publishing so I ended up learning a lot more than I anticipated. These days you can easily google the instructor and figure out what he or she has written. Not only the genre, but their style of writing. If you think their work is a bit naff, why do you think they can teach you to do better?
It sounds redundant, but I want a teacher who can teach. Someone who is supportive, encouraging, and willing to engage with her students. If you have had the misfortune to sit in a classroom with a bad tutor you will know what a miserable experience it can be. A bad teacher does worse than not teach; he can destroy all your passion for the subject. If you’re not sure about the person leading a course, see if you can audit a class before you sign on or pay any money. Talk to other students about their experiences. What do they like / dislike about the class. If you have limited options because of where you live or your finances, you may have to accept someone who is only 80-90 percent of your ideal. Compromise can still work for you, but be careful about taking advice from someone who is unpublished, is a bad teacher, is not supportive, or is completely incompatible with your needs.
I have an aversion to very large classes. I want to be heard when I ask a question. I want my work to be reviewed and to receive helpful feedback. I want individual attention. That’s not asking too much, surely? I also don’t want to be in a class where everyone else has a completely different skill level from me. The needs of an inexperienced 15 years old are very different from a 40-something with a handful of credits to her name and who just wants help polishing her novel. A class where others are at your level or slightly above is ideal. Again, not always possible, but something to aspire to.
Above all else, I want a good teacher. How do I define that? Well, for me it’s someone who is willing to listen even when the student is having problems expressing himself. A good tutor supports the efforts of the student and sees potential even if there is a long journey ahead. He or she should be enthusiastic about the craft of writing and able to communicate that enthusiasm to others. Most importantly, it’s someone who creates a nurturing environment in which the student is willing to take risks, and is not afraid to fail.
If you can find all of these things in one teacher, then bravo! If that’s not possible, consider joining a writing group. Nowadays you can find such groups on-line, a godsend for those who are house-bound or for whom time is a premium.
You can learn a great deal by reading. Read widely, not just ‘your’ genre. Read the classics. Read non-fiction. Don’t just read, but study how the writer achieved various effects. How did he write that description passage? How did she make that villain so sympathetic? Read and learn.
Read how-to manuals. They’re widely available and some are excellent. I have a special fondness for Lawrence Block whose column I read religiously in the ‘Writers Digest’ for years. Old Stevie King has a pretty good book about writing, too: On Writing. I dare you not to learn anything from it.
Then there’s the internet. You can google articles. You can go on YouTube and watch seminars given by the aforementioned Stevie King, or Neil Gaiman, or many others. Read the Paris Review series of interviews. Watch the Charlie Rose series of interviews with writers. The one below is just a teaser. There are many others.
Of course, no matter how great the teacher, no matter how inspirational the video or the book, the only way to learn to write is by doing it. So, start writing. It’s that hard and it’s that simple. You write One. Word. At. A. Time. But you can write a whole novel that way.
What are you waiting for?