To succeed in telling compelling, rich stories, we need two things—talent and skill. Whether or not talent can be taught is something I’ve heard debated over and over, but I think that’s a useless debate. The real question is whether or not skill can be taught. And the unequivocal answer is yes.
Skill, in the writerly sense, is what we call craft. The craft of writing is the raw wood, the material that underlies the beautiful home we build with our words. It includes the knowledge of how to structure a plot, whether we figure that out beforehand or pants our way through it; the awareness of how to build three-dimensional characters with strengths and weaknesses that will create empathy in our readers and a strong enough interest to carry them through the pages; and so on.
I am aware of the argument about whether or not even that much knowledge is needed to write compelling stories and I think that dispute, while interesting, is not helpful. It’s true that you can teach yourself to be a builder by the trial-and-error method. But it’s also true (and I speak from experience—insofar as this is a metaphor for writing) that you are going to do a lot of reinventing the wheel while you’re at it. And no one enjoys watching the home we built crash to the ground if there are a few aspects of building we haven’t perfected yet.
I am by no means trying to make anyone wrong who’s out there doing what we do without having taken tons of classes or read dozens of books on craft. I wrote that way for a long time, and I created projects that I’m proud of and had published, so I’d be a fool to say it can’t be done. But I also wrote stories and even books that had problems I tried again and again to fix, that required me to completely rewrite them, because I didn’t have a good enough grasp of craft to understand that the structure holding up the home of my story wasn’t sound. (I rewrote one 450-page book six times, from beginning to end, as I worked on various aspects of my craft. I was learning as I went along, which has a lot of merit, until you want to write a book that doesn’t take years to edit.)
Once I opened the door to craft, once I took my place in the shop of some of the master writers in whose company I’ve been, I began to see how much more I could focus on the talent (or art, or whatever you’d like to call it) side of my writing. When I began to understand how and why a scene didn’t work, or a plot bogged down at a certain point, I didn’t have to use all my energy figuring out what, exactly, was wrong; I knew what was wrong, and why, and so could jump immediately into the number of ways I could fix it, not how on earth I was going to fix it.
Critique groups and writing clubs and groups are invaluable sources for learning all aspects of our craft. We write in isolation, that will always be true, but, if we’re part of a regular gathering of writers, every month we have an opportunity to invest in our builder’s repertoire, whether it be straight-up craft or knowledge of the business side of our writing lives (to me, craft equally involves knowing how to negotiate the world of agents and editors as well as, for instance, understanding what to look for in a contract and how to negotiate when something is lacking). And no matter the speaker or the topic, my experience has always been that there is some tool we can come away with.
Can talent be taught? I’ll leave that to those who like to debate. Craft, all aspects of it, can, and that’s the commitment we make to each other when we come together as writers. Together we can create a writerly sanctuary worth its weight in gold. Our engagement with this sanctuary can only strengthen our own stories.