Nut + Moron + Stylist + Critic = Great Writer

by Tim Tomlinson

“I don’t care if it’s lousy. The only way to learn how to write is to write.” Susan Sontag, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963

This is going to be one of those on-the-one-hand-but-then-on-the-other arguments. Because it has to be.

The issue: can creative writing be taught?

In New York Writers Workshop’s 2006 guide to craft, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, I wrote, “When you hear a [workshop instructor] say that writing can’t be taught, run to another workshop.” I followed with a few arguments supporting the notion that creative writing can be taught, and I suggested a potentially cynical motivation for those who said that it cannot. Now, ten years, four printings, and thirty thousand-plus copies later, I wonder if there is any reasonable support for the “it cannot be taught” position.

More and more I see that, in the end, writing can only be done, it can’t be learned, by which I mean that at a certain point it’s necessary to put down the books, skip the lectures, withdraw from the workshops, avoid the consultations, ignore the “helpful” opinions, and just write. Write a lot. Write “the end” on a whole bunch of pieces, and send them out.

The poet Richard Hugo said that whenever a creative writing instructor critiques your piece, what s/he’s really saying is: “Write it the way I would.” If David Foster Wallace (RIP) had listened to his MFA instructors, and to many of his colleagues in the program, he’d probably still be struggling to write, unsuccessfully, the way they would. Instead of listening, and revising to specifications, David Foster Wallace wrote (or had written). He sent his un-MFA’d manuscript, The Broom of the System, to Viking. He finished the first year of his MFA program under the cloud of near-dismissal, he returned for his second year with a hardcover novel published by a major house, and with many significant favorable reviews (something none of his colleagues, and few if any of his teachers, could say). This is the Never-Mind-the-Bollocks-Here’s-My-Book school of writing, and it worked for the career of David Foster Wallace. 

Ironically, perhaps, David Foster Wallace wound up as the Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College where, among other things, he taught … creative writing. [NB: See the D.T. Max bio, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, for a full account on this and other DFW details.] Wallace did not do things he didn’t believe in, so one assumes he worked from the belief that creative writing could be, even should be taught. Maybe just not by MFA programs, or particular MFA programs, or particular “teachers” (no argument here).

Maybe he saw what I’ve seen, too much and too often: Wattpad, Fanfiction, Figment—drivel of the most execrable order. The “writers” whose “work” appears in these venues, and others like them, are unschooled, and, of course, so are their readers, tens of thousands of them. If the purpose of writing is to be read, then many of these writers are succeeding swimmingly. If the purpose of writing is to write well, and meaningfully, enduringly, originally, then these Wattpad etc. writers aren’t writing, they’re—to update the old Truman Capote put-down—txting.

Near the conclusion of her miraculously inspirational Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963, Susan Sontag writes:

                         The writer must be four people:

                         1. The nut, the obsédé

                         2. The moron

                         3. The stylist

                         4. The critic

                         1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence.

                         A great writer has all 4—but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.

The Wattpad school seems to embrace only (perhaps appropriately) number 2. More serious schools of creative writing can teach numbers 3 and 4. They can only model, encourage, facilitate, and cultivate numbers 1 and 2.

In an earlier contribution to this column, I provided a few key resources for sending work out, and I’ll include them again here: Poets & Writers (pw.org/toolsforwriters), Duotrope (duotrope.com), and Creative Writers Opportunities List (https://beta.groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/CRWROPPS-B/info). Both Poets & Writers and Duotrope offer extensive and fairly current guides to what’s out there in the way of print and online journals.