Who Teaches Writing?

Who teaches writing?

Lots of people.

These days, search online for “writing” or “learning to write” or any combination with the word “writing” in it, and you’ll get so many hits you’d never write another word yourself if you tried to read them all. I guess I’m one of those posters, though not here so much as another blog, Just Can’t Help Writing (which tends to get hits where this one does not). I guess I’m among those who thinks that what I have to say about writing might be worth five minutes of somebody’s time.

Online, I’ve noticed, advice comes in two basic flavors. First, get the grammar right–that is, get the Standard English Conventions right:  know where to use an apostrophe or whether you can start a sentence with “but.” After all, for students of language, such as linguists, “grammar” means not correct punctuation or choice of “that” or “which,” but how parts of sentences fit together, how words fit into sentences, what unwritten rules we all follow when we communicate verbally with each other. Even pidgins, the concocted seeming gibberish that people who can’t understand each other’s tongues use to barter when cultures intersect, have grammar. It’s how you know to say “I ate breakfast with my father” rather than “I father breakfast my with ate.” As native speakers, we imbibe this grammar as naturally as we breathe. It’s part of our environments from the day we first hear human voices, perhaps even in the womb. It’s not that we don’t need “correctness” mavens who tell us whether we can start sentences with “but.” But they serve a limited purpose. They certainly don’t tell us how to write.

The other common online teachers are the ones who tell us how to live our dreams of sharing our innermost genius with the rest of the world. There’s an evangelical quality to much of this instruction. Writing opens the soul. Pouring ourselves out to others fulfills us, makes us and our worlds aware of how special we are. Everyone wants to know what we have to say, once we find the inner truth that lets us say it. It’s just a matter of writing honestly, finding an authentic voice. Believing in ourselves and the value of our experiences to the world.

Many of these teachers have meaningful things to say about the writing experience. Much of what they say is alike because it is, in large part, true. You do have to believe in your voice to be able to risk putting it out there. I’ll grant that. I’ve also just recently read an article, I think in the New York Times, that talking about ourselves, sharing our views and thoughts, gives us a dopamine rush–that is, it stokes our physical pleasure centers. Ah, ha! So that’s why we blog!!

But the problem with this kind of teaching is that nobody can tell you how to do it or whether you’ve succeeded. How can anyone know whether what you’ve written is REALLY the REAL YOU that can gift the world with your inner vision? What if your authentic self is actually just an amalgam of a lot of other people’s views and voices, spilling out like a whole bunch of foreign coins you’ve piled into a sock on your life’s travels?

There are a lot of people who make a lot of money telling you how to punctuate and how to let loose your inner genius. There are other teachers, though, who barely make any money telling you others things. It’s about these teachers I want to write.


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