“You can’t teach writing. You expose students to good work and hope it inspires them. Some can write, others will never learn,” or so says Woody Allen, portraying Gabriel Roth—famous writer and creative-writing professor—in the film Husbands and Wives. Depending on how you feel about Allen’s remark, the rapid increase in creative-writing programs throughout the United States in the past 30 years or so will seem to you either like a hideous rash or a fragrant blossom. n+1 recently described this trend in its fall 2010 issue, in an article title “MFA vs. NYC,” and way back in 1988, David Foster Wallace complained about it in an essay for the Review of Contemporary Fiction.
For Wallace, creative-writing programs entailed all sorts of intellectual and spiritual problems that would impede someone trying to write well. One of these problems is that a writing program is going to program its writers to compose in a similarly polished, professional, and boringly unoriginal way. n+1 also complained (in an opposite way) about the ineffectiveness of creative-writing instruction: “MFA programs themselves are so lax and laissez-faire as to have a shockingly small impact on students’ work—especially shocking if you’re the student, and paying $80,000 for the privilege.”
So how does one become a writer? Maybe one of the assumptions behind Allen and Wallace’s contempt for writing instruction is that really great and unique writing—be it screenplays or novels or essays or journalism—is spirited and intelligent and honest, and writing that has those qualities can only come from a human being who’s also spirited and intelligent and honest. But you can’t acquire those essential personal qualities by just listening to someone lecture about them. You need to be born that way, or to spend thousands of hours, day in and day out, taking the risks and doing the work and making the choices necessary to, slowly and painfully, become that kind of person. And as you become that person, your vision would become sharper and you could peer more deeply into the world. To write, then, would be to file reports on all the interesting human stuff that’s revealed by such a vision.