Zen teachers, if they’re decent ones, don’t really teach anything. They work on themselves and kindly allow others to hang around and watch. It’s not like they’ve got a technique they’ve mastered and can now show you how to master it too. Instead, they fail at it over and over and invite you to watch them fail. The only real lesson you learn is how they manage not to throw their hands up in frustration, go “aw fuck it!” and give up. Actually, if you hang around me long enough you’ll almost certainly see me throw my hands up and go “aw fuck it!” a few times. But you’ll also see how I always seem to go back and start failing at it again.
The rest of the post is great (Brad is never less than amusing, and more often than not spot-on), but this part in particular made me think about teaching writing in the same vein.
I've long been skeptical of the formal idea of a "writing teacher" as someone who can teach you the steps needed to become "a writer". it's a bogus idea, because it implies that writing, or creativity, is something that can be taught in the first place. It can't.
The most anyone who is an expert in a creative field can do is two things: make public their habits and their prejudices so others can see why they do things the way they do; and pass along a few mechanical techniques that may or may not be of use to others. Most of the "teaching" falls under #2 there, but that is really about it. Everything else is up to the person in question, because nobody ever got creative by opening an instruction manual.
I've always liked the idea of "teaching" stuff by just talking as explicitly as possible about how I do things, and letting people who are sufficiently smart or self-motivated pick up on the results. Some of this is, admittedly, me being lazy — why redo work other people have done? — but some of it is also me being practical. If people want to call themselves "creative", they have to actually be creative — and they have to be motivated enough to learn how to bolster their creative skills.
Being taught the mechanical stuff is important, to be sure. It helps to study anatomy and perspective and the art forms of the past if you want to be a cartoonist. It helps to study plotting and character, grammar and spelling, theme and pacing if you want to be a writer. But after a certain point, all of that stops becoming about simply following steps someone else laid down as a model, and starts becoming about how to see other peoples' works as starting points on a journey into your own totally uncharted territory. At some point you have to just hold your nose and dive into the deep end of the pool, and hope you at least float back up.
Every story has a beginning, middle, and end, but once you have that in mind, it's your job to go see on your own how writers across time have embodied that advice — and not for the sake of copying them, but for the sake of liberating yourself from your own assumptions. That someone could begin a story at the end and work backwards is less about doing that yourself and more about asking yourself, "What else could I throw out and start afresh with?" Getting people excited about those tools is for the sake of a means to an end; you teach people the rules as a way to eventually learn how to break them. (Few teachers seem to be interested in the latter half, maybe because they know in their hearts that the only way people break the rules honestly is by doing so on their own terms.)
I don't say any of this because I'm worried about having competition. Dude, there's so few writers out there I give a damn about that anything that raises the bar is always a net bonus! (Plus, it's not as if writers are a 1:1: substitute for each other, or could ever be anyway.) It's more because inspiring other people to be creative has to go hand-in-hand with the understanding that you're not in the business of making copies of yourself, or your school of thought. You're in the business of opening the door and showing people what's beyond. Whether they walk through, or in what manner, is nonya bidness.
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