Why do some of them have willpower and discipline and others don’t? In order to answer, we have to make the original question active by returning to its true subject and object—student and teacher.
I’ve always hated the question, in part because of its passive construction, which omits both students and teachers.
It has always seemed to me to imply some abstract learning scenario wherein a generic would-be writer is acted upon by unnamed forces and thereby caused to understand the obscure codes and formulas of creative writing.
So the question has always seemed to me to promise its own answer: Of course not.
Besides, creative writing has no quantifiable body of information, its outcomes are difficult to objectively measure, it involves too much chatter and sitting around in bars and coffee houses, and anyway, real artists are born artists—people whose genius shouldn’t be corrupted by instruction. Even before I started down the road of becoming a full-time teacher of creative writing in an MFA program, before I’d entered a graduate fiction writing workshop and heard the late Frank Conroy’s staple first-day lecture on Occam’s razor, abject naturalism, the meaning-sense-and-clarity pyramid, and a long rant that included chalkboard diagrams with stick figures, coal bins, and something reminiscent of broken rainbows, during which he adamantly debunked not Transmission Model Learning but rather Transmission Model Reading (“It’s a dance!
The reader is not a passive blank slate, reading-and-writing is always a collaborative endeavor!
”), I knew writing was something I wanted to do—and that I could be taught how to do it better.
Yet, because we can write an essay or a letter, we figure we can also write a short story or even a novel.
I have heard people say, “I’d like to write a novel one day,” in the same tone they’d say, “I’d like to go to Paris one day,” as if writing a novel was a simple matter of picking up a pen and investing in a notebook.
Some people believe the answer is, fundamentally, no. Not everyone who learns to play the piano is going to be Mozart.
There is this intangible quality called talent that you either have or you don’t. All of these things can be taught, and it’s essential to learn them if you want to write well. Not everyone who learns to play tennis will be Nadal. Just because you might not end up being Mozart, does this mean you shouldn’t take piano lessons?