Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Can Writing Be Taught?

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Revise revise revise

Can Writing Be Taught?

Of course.
Well, sort of.
I’ve been teaching writing since I was in my twenties and I am a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Department. I’ve been to a workshop or two in my life – put it that way.

What I find remarkable is how much CAN be taught, even in the ten-week classes I and my colleagues teach at Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education.

Over and over again, students come in with a vague idea of a story or a creative non-fiction piece they’d like to write, and they walk away, ten weeks later, with a publishable article or a much improved tale. And I know that they walk away with a sense of how to live in the world as a writer, with a writer’s sensibility and observant eye.

Some are talented. Some are wildly talented. Some pay attention and keep at it.

Here is some of what can be learned in a creative writing class:

Avoid cliche.

Tighten up dialogue.

Leave out the boring parts.

What is Point of View and how does it work?

Where is the beginning of the piece and where’s the end?

Where do stories come from?

How is revision re-visioning?

This modest list is just for starters.

If you were an artist slinging up your canvas in the studio of an art school, you’d expect your instructor to peer at what you’ve made and offer suggestions. If you were studying the violin, you’d need years of lessons to get beyond the screeching stage. A tip offered at the right moment means that you can save hours, or even years, of time. I wish someone had given me a class on dialogue way back when.

Let’s not be too precious about all this: we are in the business of making something: A song, a performance, a story, a painting.

A more experienced artist can offer tips. At the same time, no one should camp out in the classroom forever. At a certain point, every artist/writer/musician needs to sit alone in a room with a thermos of coffee and face his or her own mind. At a certain point, there is no help.



I'm glad you like the tips. Of all, perhaps the most useful is: 'Leave out the boring bits.'
So many writers feel they have to put in how characters get here and there when in fact: From here to there/from there to here/ funny fish are everywhere.
Hope I quoted that right.

'How do we know whether we are at that point or not?'
Ace question.
I'd like to provide a wise answer. Or even semi-wise.
Perhaps it's when you are at the point where you feel you are using workshops as a way of avoiding being alone in the room.
Perhaps when you feel the workshop is (to your) tired and repetitive and you really don't need to hear from a batch of people each time you write something.

I'm recalling my own four years taking workshops at UBC. In the last year I was suddenly tired of it. Tired of the setup. Tired of hearing comments from people. Time to enter the cave....


"At a certain point, every...writer needs to sit alone in a room with a thermos of coffee and face his or her own mind. At a certain point, there is no help."
How do we know whether we are at that point or not?

Ann, I really like this. Obviously i'm not a writer but I love the list of tips.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Ann Ireland

Ann Ireland is the author of A Certain Mr. Takahashi, The Instructor and Exile. Her most recent novel is The Blue Guitar. She lives in Toronto.

Go to Ann Ireland’s Author Page