Genius vs. Skill: Can you cook writers in a microwave oven?

All, Pillar, Reflections

write-all-the-thingsThere was a recent discussion about “Skill vs. Talent” on the Writing Program Administrators listserv (aka WPA-L)  which really highlighted for me the divide we see in writing instruction – a divide that I blame for so much very bad teaching of writing when we (the field of education) know better – and have known better for decades. It comes down to two simple questions and the way that you answer them determines where you fall on the writing teacher spectrum: What does it mean to be a writer and what is writing?

There are far too many people in the world, some of them in charge of teaching writing and shaping how writing is taught, who believe writing is one thing. One of the reasons I am so passionate about writing and teaching writing despite multiple decades in this business is that writing is not one thing. It is many things – writing has almost unlimited potential to inspire and inform – and that belief has shaped the way I teach writing and the way I teach other teachers to teach writing. I strive to teach the craft of writing, but I believe my most important goal is to teach them confidence in their rhetorical flexibility and sensitivity.

Far too many writing teachers prefer to teach writing like microwave cooking. Writing is not microwave cooking. You do not simply select a button and expect a hot essay or bubbly blog post to appear when the bell dings. It is easy to believe that if we only pour the right ingredients into a container and give it a little stir then we will create something delicious in minutes. This is the lure of the microwave and so many writing textbooks and programs, but we know that microwaving is not really cooking and we should know that teaching formulas is not really teaching writing.

What is writing? Writing is a tool, forge, incubator, fire, mirror, and dream – sometimes just one thing and sometimes many things at once. If I can teach my students just one thing I hope it is the power that writing holds to change – the world and ourselves and everything in between. Once you have accepted the infinite possibilities that writing offers then, I believe, it is simpler to recognize that anyone can be a writer.

However, I see far too many people, some of them in charge of teaching writing and shaping how writing is taught, who do not believe that everyone can be a writer. They hold tight to a belief that writing is not a skill but rather a talent or innate ability. They parcel out tips and tools and strategies to their students, but they do not help their students grow as writers. Their classrooms are microwave ovens, but I prefer to make mine into a forge where writers are made through a long tempering process. Writing is both science and art. Nature certainly plays a role, but I believe it is nurture that has the greater effect – for better or for worse.

What is your litmus test for writing teachers? Mine is pretty straightforward – are you a writing teacher or a teacher of writers?

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