Can Writing Be Taught? (If It Can, Why Aren’t I Better At It?)

Can Writing Be Taught?-2

Here’s a story:

Imagine a man, a distant friend of yours. He’s a professional office worker, in his late twenties, who lives in London: one evening he wakes up in hospital, his face bruised and cut, his right cheek swollen.

From the doctors, he learns that on his way home from work, he was mugged by two guys and beaten up. They took his wallet and phone and left him unconscious in the street.

He immediately makes a vow: he will never be vulnerable like that again. He is going to devote himself to becoming an expert hand-to-hand fighter, so that if he is ever physically threatened in the future, he can hold his own. As soon as he gets out from the hospital, he looks around for a self-defence class. He does some research, finds out about a well-regarded martial arts dojo not far from his house. It’s supposed to be one of the best in London.

However, when he walks over there, he gets the address slightly wrong, and he instead arrives next door, at a basketball school. And perhaps because he’s still confused from his injuries, he doesn’t realise his mistake. He believes that the basketball teaching school is a dojo for learning hand-to-hand fighting. After all, the men and women in the basketball school look muscular and athletic. They are busy lifting weights and skipping rope. So our imaginary friend signs up for classes, diligently studying basketball three evenings a week, hanging out with his new friends at the gym on weekends.

It’s true, the other students notice that our friend really likes to talk about fighting. But he seems harmless, and nice enough.

And, after a couple of months training at basketball, he feels a lot tougher than he did before. Why wouldn’t he? He’s been working out four times a week. Basketball, he confidently feels, is a great way to learn to defend oneself from robbers. One night, when he’s out with his new friends, a trio of lads seem to want to start something, and the tallest guy on the team stares them down. Our Londoner is overjoyed: he’s learning the real deal!

He watches Youtube clips where LeBron James gets in a court-side scuffle, shoving someone in the chest, and he thinks: “That guy is so good at fighting! Look at him!”

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Thank you to everyone who read my post about Jane Austen, writing workshops, and programming languages.

As people left me comments and replied to each other’s comments, I noticed a particular topic come up. It’s an old question in writing circles: can writing be taught? And the question is a big deal for a blog like this, because, if writing can’t be taught, why bother discussing the tricks and tools of famous authors. Why share methods for improvement?

This topic has been discussed a lot, and maybe you’re tired of hearing people talking about it. And I don’t have a definitive answer. However, I think I can frame the question in a way that makes it worthwhile to ask — both for teachers of fiction writing and for aspiring authors.

The question feels so tired out because it’s usually posed in terms of one or other straw men, both of them basically meaningless. Either writing classes are held to a standard that is impossible to satisfy, or one that is pointlessly easy.

For instance, if by “teaching me to write fiction,” you mean “make me one of the greatest novelists of the last few centuries,” then clearly, you are likely to be disappointed.

It’s certainly true that tastes change over time, both in the general public and in academia. And marketing matters a great deal in getting books on shelves. However, biographies of the really famous authors are usually a sobering, frightening experience. Those men and women really do seem great.

Take, as an example, James Joyce. According to Joyce’s biographer, by the age of nine, the young Joyce had written a satirical poem about Irish politics which was read with pleasure around Dublin. By the age of seventeen or eighteen, Joyce had written a commentary on Ibsen which the prestigious journal Fortnightly Review had published; Joyce had also taught himself enough Norwegian to write to Ibsen, causing the playwright to write back, congratulating Joyce on his insightful remarks. By his early twenties, Joyce had written “The Dead,” widely considered the best short story in English, a technical and visionary masterpiece.

James Joyce

Mr. Joyce is not interested in your workshop critique.

What sort of MFA program could have helped Joyce?

And this is not simply a point about artistic prodigy. I imagine that a biographical account of literary late-bloomers like Wallace Stevens or Toni Morrison would leave the reasons for their artistic greatness equally opaque.

That said, such extreme cases don’t devalue the point of a training program. In other disciplines, many of us pay huge sums to learn Javascript coding or Mandarin Chinese, without ever receiving the promise that we will one day become the next Bill Gates, or the Chinese language version of Amy Schumer.

It’s okay to study coding at Hack Reactor if it merely leads, three years later, to my getting a lavishly well-paid job at Google. I shouldn’t blame my instructor if I never get a missile-destroyer named after me.

We might also note that the great writers often behaved as though writing can be studied and taught. The writing exercises and craft lessons that Flaubert gave the young Maupassant sound pretty much what you would expect, requiring his pupil to try out specific skills, encouraging attention to detail. During his Paris years, Ernest Hemingway, who for some peculiar reason is our culture’s model of the solitary, ultra-masculine loner, made sure to learn everything he could from Stein, Fitzgerald, and others. And among the poets, Keats maintained a rigorous regime of practice and skill training.

It would be odd if Maupassant, Hemingway, Keats and countless other well-known authors were wrong to believe writing literature was something one could get better at.

That said, the “can writing be taught” argument is often phrased in the opposite sense, one that is only marginally more useful. If, when we ask, “can writing be taught?” we’re really asking “is any improvement at all possible?” then we aren’t really saying anything, either.

You hear these sorts of arguments made when people defend MFA programs but don’t seem to have their hearts in it: creative writing classes “give writers time to write;” they “introduce students to new books;” they “give you an audience for your work;” they “give you permission, in our cold capitalist world, to be an artist for a few years.”

I’ve never found these sorts of arguments convincing. Just because a student benefits from a training program does not at all prove that the program is a good one. It does not even prove that the program is teaching even vaguely the right skills.

Let’s return to the story of our imaginary Londoner, the guy learning to play basketball. A year has now passed since he was mugged. He still hasn’t worked out that he’s not studying martial arts. But he remains just as enthusiastic about his basketball training. And when you meet him for the first time in over a year, you are struck by how much stronger he looks. His clothes hang on him differently; he seems taller, because he doesn’t slouch like he used to.

When he talks to you about his “fighting class,” you assume that this must be a great martial arts school. Look at the results!

However, this impression only lasts until the evening when he invites you to come along to “fighting class.”

When you get there, you instantly see that he has made a terrible mistake. It’s just a bunch of men and women playing basketball! You’re stunned. You even take a few minutes to visit the Thai Boxing studio next door, the class he had been supposed to take that first evening. You watch one pair of Muay Thai students smash their fists, elbows, and shins into their partners’ boxing pads. Another pair are duelling in the ring, and a third group is learning to grab someone by the head and knee him in the face. Those people are really learning how to fight.

One method is patently — obviously — so much better than the other.

(Anyone reading this who is an afficionado of a different martial art than Muay Thai, and who feels that this other school or art would have been a better example for this post, should feel free to mentally substitute it in all the examples that follow.)

Now, this argument is leading to the point where I explain my idea of how a class in fiction writing should work. And I’m obviously less confident about this than I am with the example of Muay Thai vs. basketball. Writing fiction is a very complex thing, and different for everyone.

But I do think that as teachers of fiction writing, we should try not to teach the writing version of “basketball.” We should not merely give students the time and opportunity to get better: we should accelerate that process as much as possible. There may be no reward in doing so: just as our imaginary Londoner loved his basketball classes, our writing students may absolutely love ways of studying writing that aren’t very effective. We may also be working in an administrative environment where “basketball” fits much more naturally into the system than “Muay Thai” does. So, for us teachers, the challenge perhaps is to increase the “Muay Thai-ness” of the class as much as we can.

Similarly, as students, we either need to find a class that is actually teaching us what we need, or we need to be supplementing, with our own work and research, what the available classes aren’t offering.

I’ve written elsewhere about teaching methods that I think are not so effective at improving students’ fiction writing. And to be clear, I think these approaches do have a place in a fiction curriculum. I believe they can be worthwhile and rewarding, just as learning basketball really has made our London friend tougher and stronger. The problem is not that they are bad, only that they can take over a syllabus, and leave the essential training necessary to good fiction invisible, undone.

What are some of these “basketball-ish” teaching methods?

1. As I’ve written in the essay “Sentence Anxiety,” it is unlikely that removing “boring sentences” from your prose will make your writing “good”: plenty of famous stylists have written many ‘plain’ sentences. No one notices.

More generally, all instruction based around avoidance of error or artistic faux-pas is probably just “basketball.” Learning to avoid crude words like “suddenly” or “very,” omitting adverbs and split infinitives, skipping “he unfeelingly sneered” or “she cleverly whispered” — such an awareness is good to learn, but plenty of popular and even great novels have contained similar examples of bad prose. The Great Gatsby, for instance, is something of a scandal in this regard.

2. This next one makes me uncomfortable to mention… but… if I was willing to write this argument for Roxane Gay, I had better link to it here: the “typical” fiction workshop, where in a class of twelve, three students bring in novel chapters, and two hand in “experimental” flash fictions, and six bring in more “traditional” 10-15 page short stories, and another submits sections of a memoir, with the teacher doing her very best to respond to each student in turn, offering craft guidance on each example… I don’t know if I can honestly say that’s “only  basketball.” I’ve gained so much from such classes and recommend them to every aspiring writer. And I love teaching them myself. Plus, the reality is that such classes make a lot of sense in a university Creative Writing environment, and for that reason alone, probably will be with us forever.

Yet I still don’t think you can call them the “Muay Thai” of fiction writing, particularly for aspiring novelists (they work much better for short story writers). Once you’ve had a few terms of general purpose workshops, the lessons they teach seem to start repeating themselves, and usually not in a productive way.

3. Classes based on the premise that you need to change your personality. Any course or method that starts from the idea that you aren’t already creative enough, or that you are imprisoned inside tedious literary conventions — as I suggest in my essay “To Those Poor Souls Who Dwell in Night”, this simply isn’t true. You don’t need to become more creative. You’re fine as you are. Plus, given that many famous artists from the past seem to have been horrible, blinkered, or simply rather boring people, it seems unlikely that becoming a better person is the defining step between being an aspiring novelist and being an accomplished one.

Now, any prompts or exercises or freewriting sessions that help you come up with more stories should be enjoyed and relished. These are cool, fun, useful ways to spend time. I owe the inspiration of my current novel to a writing prompt that I heard about through some writer friends. The problem, rather, is that having more ideas will not turn you from a poor novelist to a promising one.

4. The standard “MFA novel workshop,” where everyone shares the first chapter of their novel, hears feedback from classmates on that chapter, and then the cycle repeats for the second chapter, and if there’s time, the third chapter — that’s also, most of the time, just basketball.

As Cathy Day points out in her brilliant, seminal essay on MFAs and novel-writing, “The Story Problem,” a chapter of a novel only makes sense as part of a larger work. The advice anyone can give you on an opening chapter, if they haven’t read chapter two (especially if chapter two hasn’t been written yet), isn’t going to help you that much. Their feedback is certainly nice to have, but it’s just basketball.

THIS POST IS STARTING TO MAKE ME FEEL SAD!

THIS POST IS STARTING TO MAKE ME FEEL SAD!

So. If all the above is “just basketball” — all nice and good to do, but not really the right thing — then you are probably thinking COME ON DANIEL HURRY UP AND TELL US WHAT THE THAI BOXING OF FICTION WRITING IS.

Now, I’ve yet to write a wildly success novel, so this is just my opinion. But it does seem to me that there is a skill, or set of skills, which is, on the one hand, pretty much essential to everyone who wants to write novels or long-ish stories, and which is, on the other hand, only very rarely a natural gift for aspiring writers. Most people can’t do this without training or years of slow, hard practice.

You can build up a charming prose style, and an inventive mind, and a ear for realistic dialogue while still having very little ability to do this, and yet it is the thing that most readers, and most agents, look for first. And it often not taught explicitly in creative writing classes.

I would call this skill simply: story-telling. When I teach fiction, that’s the direction I try to guide the curriculum towards, whether or not the outward structure of my class is a workshop. And I’m hypenating the two words because I suspect that story-telling is really two (inter-related) skills, the “story” part and the “telling” part.

The “story” part is about plotting. Plotting is really hard and most aspiring writers do not really know how to do it. On a grand level, this certainly includes outlining, and it includes studying story structures like the three act arc, or “the hero’s journey,” or the map of plot twists that Larry Brooks describes in his analysis of Gone Girl. LITERALLY ONE OF THE HARDEST THING INVOLVED IN WRITING A GOOD NOVEL IS WORKING OUT WHAT IS SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN AND IN WHAT ORDER.

But it also includes lessons in the smaller scale work of plot. Perhaps even more important are the scene-level techniques like repetition, foreshadowing, escalation, pace, character desire, conflict and so on. How to build to an ending that feels like it means something. It also involves learning by models and genre analysis (“how does Woolf manage different points of view in To The Lighthouse?” or “What sort of things happen in a mystery novel like my one, and around what page numbers do those things tend to occur?”).

Many of these formal concepts about plot either descend to us from Aristotle’s Poetics or have been developed by the latter day Aristotleans, the screenwriting teachers like Robert McKee. As a result, textbooks like McKee’s Story offer some really good instruction on plotting.

Yet there’s more to gripping, engaging fiction than plot. Gone Girl wasn’t so immensely popular only because of its twists. When we read fiction, before we are even conscious of the plot or the setting, we are aware that we have made contact with a voice, that of the narrator. We don’t keep reading Harry Potter only to find out if Harry manages to defeat Voldemort. We keep reading because the world of those novels is so much fun to be in.

Sonny had the blues. But Sonny's readers never do.

James Baldwin may have given Sonny the blues. But he gives Sonny’s readers something else.

The “telling” part of story-telling is about how you, the writer, manage the relationship with the reader. It includes the thing we often call “voice.” But it also includes things like point of view, exposition, narration, “reader management,” and the texture and feel of the prose. Where the information is coming from, how the story is being presented.

It’s firstly what makes the reader captivated from the first sentence, and secondly what enables the reader to know what is happening as the story gets more complicated.

This second skill is actually harder to figure out how to learn. I’ve personally picked up a lot from reading the Chicago School of scholars, in books like Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. The Chicago School developed (and continue to develop) a theory of fiction that frames storytelling as an act of persuasion between author and reader. But because the screenwriters don’t have to worry so much about this, ultimate handing over the production of their stories to directors and actors, they have never needed to codify these sorts of skills, and so their textbooks are less useful here.

It’s also the case that for the past century and more, “serious” or “literary” novelists in the English language tradition have often tried to hide or downplay this aspect of their craft. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, often gives the impression that one is reading chaotic, random thoughts from a succession of characters — while this isn’t actually the case, and the novel is in secret guiding the reader carefully through its pages, the subterfuge make it harder to learn from Woolf’s example.

One has either to go back to the Victorians to see these techniques out in the open, to Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, or Great Expectations or turn to the contemporary practioners of YA fiction, in order to go to this particular school.

To conclude. There are lots of ways to learn to write better. Even if “talent” is real and important, we can still see many of the great writers of the past trying out training methods, seeking out advice, learning from exercises and prompts.

Now, it’s perfectly fine to read all this and decide that you would rather not get instruction, and instead learn organically through writing on your own. In that case, I would recommend writing a lot of pages, fast. If you can draft three new novels a year, after two or thee years, you’ll have figured a great many things out.

However, if you do make the decision to seek out writing instruction, the question to ask is not “what will improve my writing?” because lots of things will improve your writing. Better to ask “what specific assistance do I most need, given my goals?” The question is similar if you are the teacher of a class: what do my students most need to learn?

I am assuming here that you, dear reader, are involved in fiction, and that your goal could be loosely described as being able to write the kind of novel that, if someone reads the first ninety pages, they will be eager to read the rest of it.

If you are a flash fiction writer, or a poet, or another kind of artist, I might give different advice. But for us “conventional” fiction writers, I think a fiction writing class has to come to focus itself, one way or another, around the teaching of story-telling skills. And it may have to omit the teaching of lots of other useful techniques simply because time is limited.

The goal, in the end, is to not be teaching, or learning, basketball.

Notes: I’ve focused here on college-level creative writing courses, as that is what I’m most familiar with. I’m aware that there are many other ways to learn fiction, some of which seem more in line with what I’m talking about, such as Larry Brooks’s website and the courses that Donald Maas offers, as well as the genre writing schools at Clarion West and elsewhere. If you have experienced this sort of thing, I’d be curious to know what it was like.

Thank You For Talking About Jane Austen With Me

Writing advice

Thanks to everyone who read my Jane Austen and writing lessons post. Thank you, too, to WordPress for selecting it for Freshly Pressed.

I’m grateful to everyone who interacted, commented, shared, responded — being Freshly Pressed is a lovely experience for a blogger.

That piece described some of the difficulties involved in teaching writing: if students can’t see the quality of good writing, how can they learn to write better? And I noticed that as people discussed the post — here, on other blogs, and on Facebook —  a particular question kept coming up: can writing be taught at all? For many readers, questions about technique and perception might only be brushing the edge of the real issue: perhaps skill at novel-writing is something that education cannot improve.

“Can writing be taught?” is a very old question in the writing world. Some people argue that writing must be teachable, because in classrooms all over America, it is being taught. Almost all the well-known authors working today have gone through some form of writing instruction.

On the other hand, however, there remains the seemingly irreducible strangeness of fiction. How can a syllabus of lessons ever hope to encompass the actual novels written by Stephen King, James Joyce, or Toni Morrison? Even an apparently “standard” author like Jane Austen, may, on closer examination, seem so unique that it is difficult to believe her genius could ever be distilled into seven or eight key steps, reproducible by anyone.

I’m going to offer what I hope is a useful (or at least interesting) way of looking at the problem. That post should be ready by Monday or Tuesday.

Best wishes until then.

Daniel

Jane Austen, Programming Languages, and Being “That Guy” in the Writing Class

Did you read the Buzzfeed piece that came out last month, about writing workshops and Pride and Prejudice, by Shannon Reed? “If Jane Austen Got Feedback From Some Guy In A Writing Workshop.”

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Photo credit: Buzzfeed and Dan Meth

You should. It’s very funny.

Dear Jane,
I don’t usually read chick lit, but I didn’t hate reading this draft of your novel, which you’re calling Pride and Prejudice. I really liked the part where Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle went on a road trip, which reminded me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (also about a road trip — check it out!).

I won’t lie. I like to think I’m not as sexist and priggish as this guy. Still, parts of Reed’s piece made me cringe in self-recognition.

I winced.

In a writing workshop, it’s easy (easy at least for me) to develop the exact tone (superior, amused, hurried) that Reed satirises here. You’re drafting your response in a hurry, you feel like you grasp profoundly what the writer should have done differently, you have a clever theory about story-making that you want to recount… If only you just say it clearly, you think, your classmate will get it and the story will be so improved.

But you’re scribbling comments fast, just putting down ideas as they come.

So, a big question I have is “Why?” Why does Elizabeth do the things she does? Why does Mr. Darcy do the things he does? Why does Mrs. Bennet do the things she does? Have you read Hamlet?

Of course, Reed’s choice of Pride and Prejudice is particularly brilliant (as the subject of this dude’s ill-advised advice), because Pride and Prejudice is pretty much the perfect story. It can seemingly be translated into any other narrative medium — it can be re-told and re-shaped endlessly. Turn the book into a film or a comic book? Make Mr. Darcy a vampire? It still works.

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Two hundred years ago, people in England did not have running water, or telephones, or passenger trains. Darwin and his theory of evolution was still fifty years in the future. Life in Austen’s time, in other words, was almost unimaginably different to our own. And yet, 200 years after Austen created him, Mr. Darcy is still sexy! We appear to respond to the novel’s characters exactly as Austen intended her own readers to. Pride and Prejudice is an awe-inspiring achievement.

The tragedy of Reed’s imaginary workshop guy is that he can’t see any of this. He is busy talking about motifs and motivations when he should be kneeling in awe. He has his own capacity and experience of writing fiction, and he assumes that everyone else shares it: he can’t imagine that he has encountered an infinitely more advanced model of writing. So he subjects it to his own limited take.

This is a general problem in teaching. One of the biggest difficulties in teaching writing is that, a lot of the time, students can’t see quality. Show them something objectively good, and often they remain unimpressed: “It just jumps all over the place.”

I’ve been lucky to teach undergraduates so brilliant that when I’ve showed a little of their work to published, MFA-ed writer friends, the table goes silent, my friend staring at the page in uneasy admiration; yet when that same story goes to workshop, some of the student’s fellow undergrads will launch irritated, blistering attacks on it, accusing the writer of the most basic, glaring errors.

It’s a peculiar thing.

The programmer and venture capitalist, Paul Graham, once talked about this same problem, using an imaginary programming language, “Blub,” as his example.

Graham starts from the premise that different programming languages have radically different capabilities.

Some are relatively close to actual machine code, and so, if you want to do anything truly complex with them, the work will be laborious and exhausting, while others (more abstract languages) can do more and do it quicker. Those “higher” languages can achieve more for the programmer who knows how to use them. Graham asserts (or asserted at the time of writing) that one language, Lisp, is the most powerful language of them all.

Graham then asks: if Lisp is indeed the most powerful language, why isn’t everyone using it? Surely all programmers would naturally specialise in the “best” language currently available, given that their careers depended on it? Not so. And it’s not simply the result of institutional pressures. If you came to work for an organisation where everyone else was writing in C++, it would certainly make sense that you would also choose to write in C++. Graham argues, however, that even when those pressures are absent, programmers will still not choose to learn and use more powerful languages. They don’t even see why they should.

The “blub paradox,” says Graham, is that while programmers can perceive the limitations in languages less powerful than the ones they know, they can’t even imagine the good qualities of a more powerful language.

Imagine, Graham proposes, a programmer who knows how to write Blub.

Blub falls right in the middle of the abstractness continuum. It is not the most powerful language, but it is more powerful than Cobol or machine language.

And in fact, our hypothetical Blub programmer wouldn’t use either of them. Of course he wouldn’t program in machine language. That’s what compilers are for. And as for Cobol, he doesn’t know how anyone can get anything done with it. It doesn’t even have x (Blub feature of your choice).

As long as our hypothetical Blub programmer is looking down the power continuum, he knows he’s looking down. Languages less powerful than Blub are obviously less powerful, because they’re missing some feature he’s used to. But when our hypothetical Blub programmer looks in the other direction, up the power continuum, he doesn’t realize he’s looking up. What he sees are merely weird languages. He probably considers them about equivalent in power to Blub, but with all this other hairy stuff thrown in as well. Blub is good enough for him, because he thinks in Blub.

Reed’s “some guy” in the writing workshop is like Graham’s Blub programmer. When that dude looks at Austen’s work, beholding a model of fiction far more advanced than his own, he doesn’t realise what he’s seeing. Not only is he an insecure sexist, and bothered by absurd, irrelevant issues, he simply drifts over what is so powerful and effective in Pride and Prejudice. He assumes Austen’s work must operate by the kind of rules he thinks he understands. He doesn’t see that the novel was produced by a fiction-writing language called “Austen,” one that can do far more than his own paltry craft.

Because he thinks in Blub.

(The situation in fiction is obviously more tricky than Graham’s example. There is no “code” version of Austen’s novel for us to look at in the way that there is the Lisp version of the shopping websites that Graham was building. We all read the same printed pages. But it does seem that reading a book as a reader and reading it as a writer are comparable to reading it for the outward experience and reading it as an attempt — however subconsciously — to peel back its layers, see how it works. We can discover something about “Austen” by examining the novel piece by piece, noticing how key scenes are designed, savouring the ways the narration operates, making mental notes on the prose style. Reading as a writer, in other words, can make us worse readers. We sometimes apply our own intellectual standards to a novel and succeed only in breaking it.)

This is one reason why true classroom learning, moments of intellectual breakthrough, feel less like the result of slow attendance and note-taking, and more like a sudden epiphany. Probably you had heard the teacher’s words many times before. Probably the idea itself was nothing new. But the breakthrough comes when you suddenly see the conception of writing that your teacher was trying to explain. You understand that there is a more advanced way of looking at the world than Blub.

And then you can’t explain what you just realised to your friends.

As a teacher and student of writing, this theory makes me nervous, for two reasons. Firstly: there is no reason that one great, famous writer is using the same “writing technology” as any other. If we think of Pride and Prejudice as a novel created by a fiction writing language called “Austen,” then it’s likely that only Austen knew that language, and that she developed it privately, more or less in secret, over years of practice, reading, and conversation. There are superficial aspects of “Austen” that anyone can discover and adopt. There is surely a fair bit of “Austen” in all those modern-day novels that recast Darcy as a vampire or a samurai lord.

But the real core of the writing technology called “Austen” requires immense work to uncover. And uncovering it does not imply that one has any more grasp of a different fiction writing technology, one such as “Toni Morrison” or “Don Delillo.”

Secondly, this suggests that one cannot attempt, even if one knew the language oneself, to teach “Austen” to students directly. Jane Austen, in fact, might be a terrible teacher of “Austen,” because she might not be able to imagine being as bad as writing it as her students were. She would never think to teach all the necessary steps, because she had forgotten learning them; all her best pronouncements might seem either obvious or mysterious.

If the average student is writing a prose version of “Blub,” then much of what it means to be a good writing teacher is one’s ability to teach one’s own version of “Blub +” — a writing language that is better than what they are writing, but not by too much. Blub + is like Blub, but more elegant, more efficient. It helps students avoid the worst errors of Blub. It is close to Blub, however, because it requires relatively few steps to make the transition.

Now, I love teaching writing of all kinds, levels, and genres. I would probably want to teach writing even if I wasn’t being paid to teach it.

But I still wonder if that too much time in the classroom leads one to forget the difference between “literature” and “Blub +”. One gets so used to speaking about “Blub +” that one starts to think it can be used to write a novel like Pride and Prejudice.