A friend asks me, "Can style be taught?" and I don't know. What do you all think? I think writers can be taught certain techniques that work, helped to recognize ways to create felicitous and meaningful phrases-- most importantly, guided to understanding the power that controlling prose can bring. We can learn to use and not avoid repetition, to aim for sentence combination and not just variety, to design our paragraphs for suppleness with transitions and links.
However, I don't think rhythm recognition can be taught. I think we can remind ourselves always to stay open to beauty and power, to appreciate cadence and melody in sentences, and to analyze passages to imbed more meaning-- and that analysis and creativity are comrades, not enemies. I think we can all learn to open our minds, to listen for poetic phrasing, to hear the music in paragraphs.
But no, I don't think we can be taught (or learn on our own) to write like Virginia Woolf or Vladimir Nabokov, any more than the most astute tennis coaching can give us a forehand like Serena Williams's. Talent does give you an edge in any endeavor. :) I do, however, think that almost anyone functionally literate can be taught to write on an adequate level, and that already adequate writers can be taught some techniques to be good writers, and that extraordinary writers can learn from the responses of good readers to improve whatever rough edges or complications still remain.
Notice the missing step there-- good to extraordinary. I suspect that step is the one that depends most on talent and dedication, and the least actually on coaching or teaching.
This is, actually, the problem I had with the character of the young math genius in Good Will Hunting. He happened to be a genius, but he had no real interest in math or anything else, and so it wasn't just his poor background that relegated him to janitorial status while not-quite-so-brilliant guys became MIT professors. (Notice that when the professor tries to help him explore math on something beyond a "trained-monkey" level, Will rejects him and leaves, and never does, it seems, pursue this inquiry.) He had no enthusiasm, no real love for the seeking of knowledge. And that, more than the childhood abuse, more than the underprivileged upbringing, was what doomed him to his angry, bitter, resentful existence. I remember my mother talking about her own past-- born the child of ethnic immigrant factory workers in the Depression, enduring a childhood of serious illness and fears, and a pretty inadequate factory town education, not to mention a culture that actively discouraged girls from achieving-- and she said, "I was a timid girl. But I had an enthusiasm for science." (She ended up with a PhD in microbiology.)
Enthusiasm is an essential ingredient, I think, in becoming more than just the talent. And that's what will take the merely talented, the naturally great wordsmiths, into eloquence. But neither talent nor enthusiasm can be taught, and so that step from good to great (which requires both) is probably the one that is hardest to make, and hardest to coach too. And of course, those are the writers who probably most want to be great, and who, sadly, recognize most how far they are from greatness.
(You've probably noticed that the most confident writers are generally the least accomplished... the better we get, the more we realize how distant greatness really is. :)
Fortunately, "merely good" is plenty good enough to succeed in almost every field, if "merely good" is combined with "hard working" and "disciplined". So maybe we can go from "merely good" to "very good" through study. What do you all think? Can you teach style?
(And of course, we should eventually discuss the diff between "style" and "voice".:)
Alicia being difficult