Today’s The Morning News published this essay by the novelist Alexander Chee on his experience of Annie Dillard as a writing instructor during his college years. I’ve never read Mr. Chee nor Annie Dillard. However, this essay is a brilliant encapsulation of not only what it means to write well but what it means to be writer.
The idea that clings to me the most is the idea that writing can, in fact, be taught. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that a writer, in order to have a unique voice, shouldn’t need to listen to other writers. There are no rules because you are being creative–you either have talent or you don’t. I once told a friend that I was thinking about taking coursework towards an MA in Creative Writing…he stated emphatically that I shouldn’t. We didn’t really get into why, but I think that it’s the idea that others would simply teach me to write like them and that I shouldn’t listen to what others tell me.
There’s merit to this. In the essay, Chee references the fact that Dillard specifically asked her students not to read her work. That she didn’t want the students to “ape” her style, her writing. She wanted to read their own works. However, at the same time, she dismisses the idea of being original…except for the fact that whatever you write comes from you and your experience and that, in and of itself, makes your work unique. Nothing is new under the sun except for your perspective.
There is no singular “right” way to write. With any creative process, creativity encourages one to break, or at least subvert, whatever supposed rules come along. At the same time there are myriad “wrong” ways to write. We all know these when we stumble across them (often in our own prose). Good writing comes not only from correct grammar, syntax, and vocabulary but also from understanding enough about language and about what you are trying to communicate so that you are able to manipulate these various taught aspects in the most communicative and artistic way possible.
It’s important to learn from those that do this constantly. It’s a craft. As Chee says, it’s not rocket science. You can’t learn a craft without walking in the footsteps of those that have gone before. Truly great art seldom comes by accident or by artists that bumble about blindly with no sense of what they are trying to accomplish. Not that I aspire to great art, but I do aspire to great writing. And one day, after practicing and learning everything I can from whomever I can, I will achieve it.