School of Nonfiction with Shulem Deen

Years ago, when I first began to think seriously about writing — and whether if it can be taught and learned — I came across this in a writing book somewhere: “Writing isn’t always fun,” the book said. “Writing is work. Writing can be hard work.”

This didn’t ring true to me at the time. Back then, my writing came from bursts of inspiration, almost always unexpectedly. I’d have a thought, then scribble it in my notebook on the bus ride home from work, on a napkin during dinnertime, or — I confess — while goofing off at the office, when my boss wasn’t looking.

Back then, writing was fun. It always felt inspired. It never felt like work. The idea that writing can be taught and learned was completely foreign to me.

Then a hiatus arrived, long stretches with no bursts of inspiration, nothing inside me pushing for release, and so I did no writing. I missed writing, but felt like I had nothing to say. Sometimes, determined to write, I’d go for a walk, or take my car for a drive, or rummage through the fridge for a snack, waiting, always waiting, for inspiration.

It was only when I began to think of writing as craft that I realized: writing is a discipline. As such, it is indeed work, sometimes very hard work — although, as with all hard work, when done well, so very rewarding.

Discovering writing as a discipline brought with it the realization that, as with any discipline, it requires a great deal of practice. Also: an acquired skillset—the wisdom derived from guidance and ideas and techniques passed from one practitioner to another. And as with every discipline, it can be learned. And what can be learned, can be taught.

A popular adage about writing — sometimes attributed to Hemingway, but who really knows:

Write drunk, edit sober.

I don’t literally recommend it — the tales of self-destruction by writer alcoholics are legion. But there’s wisdom in the adage.

First drafts require a lowering of inhibitions, letting words flow, keeping them coming, not worrying about crafting perfect sentences or finding that elusive mot juste. First drafts should give our prose the kind of sputtering, rambling, meandering quality we fall into after tossing back one too many. Write your first draft like you know you’re clever and funny and beautiful and sexy. Write like you know how to dance, shaking the words out of your hips. Write without worrying about looking foolish, like no one’s looking, and if they are, you don’t care. You have time to care later.

This is the first kind of discipline to apply to your writing. The discipline to simply write, to let thoughts flow, unordered, unadorned, in a beautifully chaotic mess, even if much of it will later be gone. The discipline to make writing a habit; like brushing your teeth, or putting up the morning coffee.

It takes discipline to write even when uninspired, when it feels like you have no thoughts worth sharing, no insight into your own life, let alone anyone else’s, nothing to say that isn’t trite or banal. It takes discipline to force your mind into a kind of drunken state, and to not give much thought to the sober observer. Inspiration has its own will; it comes and goes by its own rhythm. But inspiration need not be the master. When inspiration finds you working, it will edge itself onto the page. Your job is just to get that page filled with whatever comes.

Later, however, you will care. Later comes revising, and for that, you need the steeliness of sobriety.

That is the truer and greater and more difficult discipline. That is where you apply craft.

Good writing requires not only letting your unique voice out — your drunk voice — but also the application of good writing principles, and those two parallel processes require different mindsets.

To edit sober is to apply your most discerning faculties to the chaos of your first drafts. Not only the rules from your freshman creative writing class–show, don’t tell; kill your darlings; avoid clichés—but also the acquired wisdom that tells you when to violate those rules. This is the true discipline of writing, where writing is not necessarily fun, where writing can, in fact, feel tormenting. This is also where you make your writing shine. Your “drunk voice” will give your writing its unique flavor, but it’s your sober exercise of craft that will make your writing more resonant, more deeply penetrating, and more memorable.

The best way to acquire a skillset within any discipline is to learn from those who have mastered it, and with writing, too, the best way to master the craft, is to learn from others. What makes a reader care? What makes sentences come alive? What kinds of words have the strongest impact?  What gives a piece of writing order and cohesion?

Those who’ve mastered the craft have the wisdom to help us answer those questions. This means that writing can most definitely be taught. The question is only: are we willing to learn?