“I wrote screenplays as a way to get into production. I wrote six or seven before I sold one.”
screenwriter, Raiders of the Lost Ark
There is an age-old question; Can writing be taught?
Don’t be silly, of course it can.
When it comes to most things in life we expect that we must be taught how to do them properly. We are taught how to ride a bike, swim, our A-B-C’s, to a drive a car, how to be a doctor or a mechanic. Talent and drive will play a part in how well we do something, but Tiger Woods’ dad taught him how to hit a golf ball and Archie Manning taught his boys (Peyton & Eli, Super Bowl MVPs) how to throw a football.
For some reason when it comes to the arts many yield to the old saying that that is a talent we are simply born with. I took the photo of the little red school house yesterday just for this blog. (I took the barn photo at the top as well while driving to a short film I was working on this summer.) I was taught in high school and college about lighting, composition, exposures, etc. I took bad pictures and teachers told me what I did wrong. I read books and studied great photographers. I learned how to be a photographer. (It probably didn’t hurt that my mom was an art teacher.) While I don’t claim to be the next Ansel Adams, that skill has paid a few bills.
Here’s what the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop states on their website:
“Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed. If one can ‘learn’ to play the violin or to paint, one can ‘learn’ to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.”
Okay, so maybe they had a lawyer look over that document so it essentially says writing can’t be taught but it is something you can learn. Fine. I’m in their camp on this matter. If they don’t want to use the T word that’s their prerogative. With their track record they can call whatever goes on there whatever they want. (But I do think we’re dealing with a degree of semantics between educating, training, honing skills, inspiring, developing, encouraging and teaching.)
Often when people talk about being self-taught they mean they weren’t taught in the formal sense of going to school and taking classes. But make no mistake, they were taught. One can learn in a variety of ways outside a classroom, but having a mentor is the best way to learn a trade. That is the way the Renaissance painters learned. It was a tradition passed down for generations in various trades be it a shoe smith, a glass blower, or a carpenter. In the United States that model has been eclipsed a good deal by academia.
How would someone go about teaching themselves how to write if they lived, say, in the middle-of-nowhere? Here’s what screenwriter Joe Eszterhas wrote, “Inhale a writer you admire. Knowing nothing about writing a play, Paddy Chayefsky (Network) taught himself playwriting by sitting down at the typewriter and copying Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour word for word. He said, ‘I studied every line of it and kept asking myself, Why did she write this particular line.’” That’s a passion for learning.
Now probably the majority of writers these days do come from a college educated background. But it’s not a requirement. Neil Simon said the closest he got to college was walking by NYU. At one time Simon had three plays running on Broadway and has had a string of hit films. Where did he learn how to write? He credits his older brother Danny.
Academy Award winning writer of Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino said, “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, no, I went to films.” That was his education. He also studied acting and a filmmaking workshop or two.
Some writers come from law school (John Grisham) and some from medical school (Michael Crichton. Who, by the way, wrote Twister shot here in Iowa–can’t pass those opportunities.) Writers come from everywhere.
And writers keep writing. One thing I will keep shouting on this blog is that screenwriters that get produced are relentless. I just read an interview with Geoff Rodkey, who said after his screenplay Daddy Day Care was released, “I’ve written something like eighteen screenplays, and this is the only one that’s ever been made.” Sure the reviews were less than glowing, but my hat goes off to anyone who can pull in $100 million in the box office.
And what do writers do before that breakthrough? They keep writing.
“I felt the years go by without accomplishment. Occasionally I wrote a short story that no one bought. I called myself a writer though I had no true subject matter. Yet from time to time I sat at a table and wrote, although it took years for my work to impress me.”
Bernard Malamud (The Natural and Pulitzer Prize winner The Fixer)
“Learning to write is not a linear process. There is no logical A-B-C way to become a good writer,” says Natalie Goldberg.
There may not be a logical way to being a good writer, but having a good mentor or teacher is probably the most common factor found in successful writers. You’re fortunate if you can find one in your life. This is not to be confused with a screenwriting guru who passes though town over the weekend. They can be helpful as I’ve pointed out before, but are best seen as a quick motivational jolt. A mentor or teacher guides you through the ups and downs of your learning process. They invest in you as a writer and as a person. They nurture your writing.
Lew Hunter who helped found the masters in screenwriting program at UCLA used to open his home in Burbank to writers. Since retiring he now runs Lew Hunter’s Superior Summer Screenwriting Colony in Nebraska. He used to teach fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne (Sideways).
“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
Though none of my feature screenplays have been produced I have had the opportunity to hear actors say words I have written for short films, radio dramas, one-act plays and video productions. I’ve had over a 100 newspaper and magazine articles published. And I have carved out a 20-year career working in media production. And it all began with one teacher at Lake Howell High School who took an interest in developing in me a skill in writing that I didn’t really know I had. (Honestly, I signed up for her creative writing class because it looked like an easy elective.)
“A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows and rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.”
So this Monday Night when ABC airs a new version of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (starring Sean Combs) I will be watching and thinking of Dr. Annye Refoe who showed the Sidney Poitier film version to our creative writing class. For it was there I began to see and appreciate powerful writing.
Somewhere in Hansberry’s education growing up in Chicago and later at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she learned how to write. And she took some negative experiences that had happened in her life and turned them into something that we’re still watching today. If you’re a writer, I hope your work finds that kind of light. And if you’re a teacher, may you help your students write one single good poem, or perhaps a single good screenplay.
Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith