Friday, September 4, 2009

Can style be taught?

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


Editor Cassandra said...

I don't think style can be taught, but I'm fairly certain that style can be learned.

When I was growing up, I loved to read and experience story but I hated my Language Arts classes with a passion, so much so that I ended up a senior in college in remedial grammar. I didn't care about participles, modified adverbs, all those fancy words that mean that one word is something and another is something else. What I could do, however, after years of reading books, is tell you if a sentence was constructed wrong. I wouldn't be able to tell you the names of things that were wrong, but I could tell you what needed to be changed to fix it.

I also look around me and notice that people who read thrillers tend to like drama in their lives, people who are snarky tend to read Douglas Adams, and those that read only that month's bestseller tend to be very much seeped in the material rat race. I say tend because of course not everybody is like that, but there's a good 50% in each category who do.

So it goes that if you spent years reading Nabokov and only Nabokov you might tend to write like him. You'll start thinking like him, quoting him, maybe even dressing like him. It's only natural that your writing would follow suit.

I don't think something like that can be taught in an academic institution as we have them now. It would take years of study, or at least long-time immersion in a certain style for it to take.

And so, like myself not knowing the difference between participles and modified adverbs, writing in that certain style you "picked up" wouldn't be something you could quantify. You'd just start doing it, not know why or how or specifics.

I think this goes along with learning a new language. You can learn what the words are, memorize a new sentence structure, and have a basic knowledge but if you truly want to be fluent, it would take a long time with others who spoke the language to pick up the tiny hints in sounds, slang, etc, things that can't really be taught but must be experienced.

Then again, why would you want to write like Nabokov?

Edittorrent said...

I would love to write as fluidly as Nabokov. :) Not exactly like him.

My style, I find, owes a whole lot to CS Lewis, as I read the Narnia books several times during that formative pre-teen period. You know, the last time the brain wasn't distorted by a lot of hormones!

Leona said...

I hadn't really thought about it, but I think Cassandra is right. Style may not be something to be taught. It can be learned, or at least influence the way a person writes.

I tend to write a lot like whomever I'm currently reading. I read mysteries and romance the most, and I think I've written two stories that did not have mystery's influence.

When I'm in an English/British kick, I spell grey like them, colour, etc. When I was 10-12 my favorite books were CS Lewis and Agatha Christie.

I was adopted the day before my tenth birthday. One of my many new adoptive aunts gave me the Chronicles of Narnia and hooked me on reading. I went from there to Agatha Christie. Maybe that's why I have a hard time writing in a specific genre! LOL

I believe strongly that we are influence by what we read. I also paint, mainly in oils. My professor, who also taught Art History, says you can't create in a vacuum. I think it can be applied to writing as well. And what happens, when you expose yourself to other forms and styles, will decide your style.

Jami Gold said...


I agree very much with what you said. People learn things (without ever being consciously aware of it) by absorbing it from the life they surround themselves with. I call it learning by osmosis. :)

I've made no secret around here that I didn't know what the heck a participle was before this blog, but guess what? I've actually worked as a copy-editor before. Scary, huh? But as you said, you can learn to just tell when something is wrong. The one thing I didn't catch by instinct (until I came here) was the tricky dangling modifiers - the non-blatantly obvious ones. :) So I have no clue how I picked up enough to be even somewhat-functional, but somehow I did. :)

Jami G.

Robin Lemke said...

I think that an awful lot of writing can be taught to those who can grasp it. And perhaps that's the difference, does the student have the inherent talent to grasp what's being taught.

And I think that's the way it is in any field. Someone could certainly teach me a few dance steps, but I really, truly lack physical intelligence. I can't roller skate or surf either, and probably never will.

I think both work together, and it's hard to say in any given writer how much is teaching and hard work, and how much is pure talent, but we should never shy away from trying to learn or trying to teach.

Jenny Brown said...

I think Leona is on to something.

Style may be absorbed as much as it is taught. What you read influences what you absorb.

Many bestselling authors are very strong on story but weak on language, which is why it is so important for aspiring authors to read very widely and to read outside of the confines of their chosen genre.

Edittorrent said...

"I was adopted the day before my tenth birthday."

Leona, that sounds like a great first sentence for a novel!