Blog | Eugene Havens

Does anyone think you can actually teach writing?

Dickens, Austen and Tolstoy didn't go to writing school, so why do we?

Hand under a light
Author Eugene Havens

About Me

Eugene Havens is the founder of The Writing Thing Press. A graduate of the MFA program at The New School, Eugene is the author of Marble on a Table: A Novel. See Eugene's author page.

A gift granted

Great writing not only influences the present day but guides the future. We’ve seen it happen since the earliest days of writing. The novel particularly has served as a time capsule. Self-contained and indestructible (if it’s left alone), an unassuming novel may be carried forward to inform the next generations. How often is Orwell’s novel 1984 referenced as a warning about a dystopian tomorrow none of us wants to see? A great novel has a powerful effect.

Not every great author is recognized right away. Jane Austen and Franz Kafka were modestly known while they were alive. Conversely, Dickens and Tolstoy were world-famous throughout their lifetimes. What unifies these authors from different continents, and writing in different languages, is their work. Their novels, and the ideas found within them, are a part of our heritage. Although these books are old, through the power of their artistry, they have shaped our cultural history. Joseph K being arrested one morning, Anna Karenina throwing herself under a train, and Oliver Twist asking for a second helping are moments that have taught us about humanity.

Grasping the power of the novel takes effort in our current culture, mired in a dark age. Literacy is down. Free expression is endangered. Technology is king. The written word is passé. Human relations are politicized down to the smallest detail.

These developments don’t make the novel less important, but the opposite. We need more great writing, which begs the question. Can writing be taught? Can great authors be made?

If you can teach someone how to be a great writer, you can affect an entire culture. You could, in theory, shape history.

It has long been assumed that, yes, you can make authors. There are dozens of graduate-level writing schools in this country. The purpose of these schools is to turn a middling writer into an above-average one or even a great one. The apprenticed author will learn how to write a book that is accepted by a New York publisher. The book will receive a global distribution. After that, the sky’s the limit.

MFA programs trade tuition for hope. I know because I graduated from one. And yet, what is the result? Have these pedagogical institutions, these “writing factories,” produced great writing? We can broaden the question from a school program to any kind of writing apprenticeship. Could a saintly book editor or an uber-patient mentor turn a struggling writer into a real talent?

Point blank: can someone put the skill into a writer that wasn’t there?

In our modern society, we live by bedrock assumptions based on efficiency and informed by data. We rarely question the data. It speaks for itself. Lately, we’ve had these assumptions challenged in the area of public health. The data points about the pandemic and the vaccine were not accurate, as we were told.

As a result, some of us are left to question everything. I’ve been led to question the assumptions about what a writer is and, with training, what he or she can be.

Like many other would-be authors in our consumer culture, I bought into an assumption. I believed I could improve my talent by paying tuition to an MFA program. The school I attended was highly thought of, but the experience was questionable. I wondered how I could improve by sitting in a crowded classroom and listening to a notable writer give advice about writing craft.

I enjoyed the close proximity to the authors who were our instructors. A few of them I had long admired. It was worth the tuition, I felt, regardless of whether the program worked.

What came of it? From my graduating class, one student became a nationally published author. She had been published prior to enrolling, which raised the question of what the program did for her. She went on to write several bestsellers. It was the outcome every student wanted, and only one achieved it.

A few students went on to sell their books to a small press. It counted as being published, and yet the real-world benefits were negligible. A small press lacked the resources to distribute a book far and wide. For an author, getting published by a small press is a line item on a résumé rather than a real victory.

Most of my fellow students likely gave up the hassle of writing altogether. Graduate school was as close to the literary life as they would get. At least one would become disillusioned with the publishing process. He would reject literary politics and found his own publishing company. It’s what I ended up doing.

I’ve often wondered if going to graduate school hurt my writing. The modern publishing industry is stifled by groupthink. The authors who succeed in navigating the industry are naturally political themselves. I found no inspiration in listening to experts give rules for getting published in New York. The culture had shifted from classical moral thinking to post-modernist relativism. The authors and books we were meant to emulate were not inspiring. I didn’t write because life was chaotic. I was drawn to write about morality within the chaos.

The classic novels we revere (a great many of us still) are set on a moral bedrock. These books are handed down because moral teachings are rare to find. It becomes a necessity to draw from the past if you want this kind of book. A classic novel is held onto by its fans like a life preserver. Its truths are invaluable.

Relativist books don’t need to be handed down. They’re not special or rare. Every generation writes a new version making the idea of reading a past version sort of ridiculous. The newest relativist book will have the latest teachings included.

Upon receiving an MFA, I was given marching orders to conform to the rules espoused by New York publishing. I spent a decade trying to bend my writing style. I lost a lot of time. More importantly, I lost the writing voice I once knew.

It was only by giving up the dream of being published that I found my way. Once I could put two words together without thinking of the publishing industry, I became contented with the result, good or bad. Today, I view the literary scene as a strange, foreign place. My Twitter feed is filled with literary insiders who don’t talk about literature. Their interest is political. They use the vehicle of books to push fashionable, post-modern agendas. Their goal is to remake the world in a controversial image.

The New York literary scene is filled with writers who have MFAs. None have written a classically great book. These writers are anonymous members of an ecosystem that serves itself and its political ambitions, not the desires of general readers.

Looking back for the last great world writer, it would have to be JK Rowling. Her Harry Potter series is geared toward young adults, admittedly, but given so few choices in our post-literate culture, it meets all the criteria of classic writing with a story that has captured the imagination of generations.

Did JK Rowling go to graduate school? Does she have an MFA? No. Her biography shows no special training for being a writer. She was called an average student. Rowling was denied entry into Oxford. Now she’s the richest writer in the world. How is it possible she was able to write so well without formal training?

What about JK Rowling’s favorite writer Jane Austen? Did Austen receive any special schooling to become a novelist? Again, no. Jane Austen was primarily homeschooled. She received her education through books and lessons from her father. When Jane was twelve years old, she began to write long-form works.

An instinctive draw toward writing is found in the biographies of Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy. Dickens was denied educational opportunities due to his father’s poverty. Tolstoy came from a wealthy family but lacked motivation. Like Rowling, Tolstoy was called an average student. None of these literary greats went through an MFA-like writing program. None were taught how to write fiction. Each legendary writer would create complex works through their own understanding of the craft, by voracious reading and following their natural literary voices.

Can writing be taught? Who wants to know the real answer? Surely, not the administrators of the numerous writing programs. Nor the students who pay to reach their literary dreams. It’s not a profitable question.

The data? It suggests great writing is a gift granted from above. A writer either has it or not. A classroom has nothing to do with it.

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