A reader sent me an email: Do you think writing can be taught?

Six months ago, my answer would have been a yes, absolutely, for sure, 100%. It can.

Today, I am not so sure. You see, I have failed someone as her “writing teacher” and have learned that there is one aspect to writing that cannot be taught.

Let me explain. I have been teaching food writing for many years now. I get all kinds of students from all walks of life: chefs, PR people, homemakers, professional writers, cookbook authors, career changers, etc. Some stick with the class and do the tasks, some find excuses not to do the homework but eventually submit something. Some are amazing. Many of my students have gone on to sell cookbooks, write articles, create amazing blogs.

And then came a student who humbled me to no end. She took the highest level of the course, which includes one-on-one mentoring with me via phone. The first week was fine but she had not had a chance to do her homework, then the second week and no homework, then the third week and I had not seen a single word from her. So we talked and she explained her fear of writing. She could not sit down and do it. She was afraid of failing. Ah, I had dealt with this so many times before, with myself and with other students.

I told her about doing morning journals, about writing like no one is reading. I begged her to write a few lines. I scolded her for not doing her homework. I cajoled her into trying to write one paragraph, a bio, a sentence.

No matter what I did, nothing worked. Nothing. At the end of seven weeks, she let me know she was grateful that I had taught her so much and that just the first phone call had been worth the entire course.

But I felt I had let her down. I could not get her to write. No matter what I did, I could not get her to write.

Now that I have had time to lick my wounds and consider this a bit more, I have come to a realization of the big secret about what cannot be taught in writing: it is this need to write. It is the urge to put all that is in your heart and mind on paper. It is this calling that will not let you sleep at night unless the paper is full of words.

That part, I am afraid, cannot be taught.

So come to me to learn the art, the craft, the technique. But you will have to go deep into your heart to learn why you do or don’t want to do this. If it doesn’t tug at your heart and make you crazy, then writing isn’t the right profession for you.

You will write because you want to write. No one can make you.

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  1. so true and so very well expressed. you can take the horse to the water but you cannot make him drink the water. Not everyone is born to write best sellers but we are all born to express ourselves ….if we can talk, we can write…!!

  2. It always comes down to the old axiom.
    Writing = Butt in Chair, Fingers on the Keyboard.
    It’s not easy. There is never enough time, but always plenty of excuses.
    If writing is a desire—a passion—and you’re willing to put blood, sweat and tears into your craft, then you are a writer. And not just a wannabe.

  3. I think the point you make is true for just about any work — whether you call it “need,” or “will,” or “motivation,” the student will only get something out of the class if they are willing to do the work. And don’t forget you have lots of success stories!!

  4. I’m sure that was a frustrating experience especially for you, but I love the lessons you took from it.

  5. I think you’re right, Monica, in that not everybody has the need to write. It’s that need that drive us forward. Also, I think you can teach the craft of writing, but I’m not sure about the “feel for language” that brings life to writing. But I often wonder what brings these students to us? (I’ve had students like this myself.) Is it the idea of writing as a sort of “romantic” notion?

  6. Writing can be taught but forcing someone to write is impossible. I think this person had the advantage over you by being far away and not in front of you. She could simply hang up the phone and walk away from it until the next phone call. As a writing instructor, I do think writing can be taught just like any craft or skill. We can offer them the tools, teach them how to judge and critique, impart our knowledge and help them break down and think beyond their own limits, limitations and expectations. But we have no control over their actions, their personal responsibility, their creativity or talent beyond whatever inspiration we can inspire.

  7. If I ever get a tattoo I will have to steal your words ‘if it does not tug at your heart and make you crazy’ …

    You did not fail your student. Writing comes from within. You helped her open the door and gave her the freedom to express herself with words. Fear of failure is stifling Monica. And until we start failing … we sure as heck can’t start learning.

  8. I love your words. I think anything can be taught, but it is a two way street. If the recipient is not open, or blocked, or cannot find her passion, I don’t think it is a failure on the instructor’s part. And in every experience, I think something is gained.

  9. i believe you can teach skill, teach tecniques, teach structure, share experience, share tips, share knowledge – but i don’t believe you can teach passion. passion for a craft – whatever that craft is – cooking, writing, singing, acting, cleaning toilets or dusting furniture – is the driving force behind whatever your craft happens to be. i write but am not certain that i am a ‘writer’ – i have cycles where i cannot get the words down fast enough – they spill out onto the page freely; and then there are weeks/months where the words are silent and i am mute. but the bottom line is that my time, my energy will be spent doing those things i am passionate about and i’m not sure that is something which can be taught

  10. I love the comments thread on this post – they go further into your topic. Really enjoyed the Smith Bites’ comments — what they said is true, you can teach the technique but the passion has to come from the writer. Monica you are an amazing and inspiring teacher – don’t ever doubt that. We have learned so much from you and keep on doing so every day. I can’t go through a day without looking at “what’s Monica saying today” via your tweets, site or wall. You have shared so much of your knowledge with your students, you’ve given it all your all. No you have not failed us. If at all, you continue to be a role model to many. It’s up to the student, whether she wants to pick up the pen and write down her thoughts — that’s on her. I need to stop now – I’ve written too much and I’m rambling. Thanks again for the inspiration today 🙂

  11. What you write is so true! Your student is experiencing resistance. I’ve been there many times myself. No one can push you past it.

    Steven Pressfield wrote a great book called “The War of Art” in which he addresses this issue. Resistance is probably the biggest roadblock to any form of creative outlet. Hope your student pushes past it.

  12. Monica, I have a feeling that is not the end of the story. You may well hear from that student again. The fact that she said that the first phone call alone was worth the entire course says that the value of the class was worth more than revealing to her that she should not be a writer. It’s an intriguing story for sure and good example of the need for passion and drive. There might be more to the story though. The only time that I have trouble writing is when I am writing something that I am supposed to write vs something I want to write. The obligatory writing totally stymies me and keeps me from moving on to the enjoyable writing. Needless to say, I’m trying to kick all the obligatory writing to the curb. I wonder if the student was feeling obligation more than anything. That would not be any reflection on you (it’s more of an obligation she put on herself), but I have felt totally uninspired to write in writing sessions I’ve attended in the past because the topics we were given to write about had no meaning to me. Anyway, an interesting discussion and I’m glad you shared this story with us, Monica!


  13. Good afternoon Monica and Everyone. Monica, you did not let that student down. She said herself that the first conversation was worth her $$. It is possible you loosened a brick in the wall of fear she faced, allowing her to continue to push it over. it is not your responsibility to get her over her fear, that is her job. Doing what you said you’d do, being conscientious and most of all being kind helped your student more than any amount of homework she did or didn’t do.

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