Writing Without Teachers

Thursday Postcard

When I was a kid, a librarian drove a bus loaded with books to our neighborhood, which had no library. Every week, she parked the bus a couple of blocks down from our house. 

Built-in shelves lined the walls, and the librarian checked out our books with the steering wheel at her elbow. The highlight of my week was when word came that the book bus was on the corner.

Back then, I never would have dreamed that one day I would personally know a whole bunch of people who’d written books.

Many of my friends are writers. I work with writers, I teach writing, and I teach other editors how to work with fiction writers. I write a lot myself.

The writers I know are from all over, with varying levels of skill and training. Many have no formal writing education, though by the time they get to me they’ve already learned a lot by dint of having written a book.

[BTW, formal education, like an MFA, doesn’t really matter to the outcome for most writers. The New York Times‘ hardcover bestseller list is not awash in people with MFAs, as this astonishing article shows.]

I did a low-residency MFA because I was tired of writing bad novels. The best part was the teachers who read my stuff and helped me see what I was doing. The next best part was all the books I read. I had to! It was part of the degree to lie around and read!

Since my MFA  ended over a decade ago, I am still learning to write. And the best part, now that the teachers are gone, is the books.

I go to the library a lot and read whatever I want. Lots of fiction. Lots of nonfiction. I rack up fines because I have way too many books out at once and lose control of the situation. 

And I read at work (yes, I have a dream job!). I see writers take risks and put their characters through hell. I learn from each manuscript I work on–what works and what doesn’t work, when it works or doesn’t, and why.

I still think that writing is first a “learn by doing” task. But the doing can be easier, and its quality can be higher, if you learn by reading, too.