Can Writing Be Taught?

by Elizabeth Lutyens, Editor in Chief

Jennifer McGaha, author of memoir Flat Broke with Two Goats, teaches in the Great Smokies Writing Program

Popular debate. Trick Question. Everyone understands that writing is teachable; ask any kindergartener learning to transform sounds into letters. The tricky part is that a word is missing from the common phrasing of the question. Creative.

Those on the NO side of the question say that even if creative writing can be taught, creativity can’t be. The people on the YES side argue that creativity comes from the act of writing itself. I’m not sure how B.F. Skinner felt about this particular debate, but allow me to repeat his famous quote on the subject: “The physical act of writing is the cause, not the effect, of new and original thought.”

After almost ten years as editor in chief of this publication, I can point to proof about the teachability of creative writing, and its concomitant generative vigor. Twice a year we publish nonfiction, fiction, and poetry from selected students in UNCA’s Great Smokies Writing Program. The bios the authors append to their submissions more often than not include credit to a class for the inspiration, discipline, and collaboration that resulted in a finished publishable piece.

Another tricky aspect of the question at hand is its passive voice. How can we say whether or not writing can be taught if we don’t know who’s doing the teaching? The Executive Director of the Great Smokies Program, Tommy Hays, mines Asheville and the wider Western North Carolina region for his gold-star faculty. They are experienced teachers of writing in the genre of their specialty, and they are notable authors (most recently published—October 2, 2018, Harper/Collins—is Abigail DeWitt’s novel News of Our Loved Ones). They are also generous, sharing the tools, and passion, of their trade as contributors to the Craft Session columns that appear here each issue.

This time, Jennifer McGaha, author of Flat Broke with Two Goats (Sourcebooks, January 2018), shares her solution to the quandary of presenting readers with a possibly “unlikeable character” who, in the case of memoir, is also the author. “Perhaps,” she writes, “if these complicated artists were people we knew in real life, we might avoid them—head down the next aisle in the grocery store when we saw them coming, dip into bathrooms when we ran into them at social functions. In the midst of their messiness, they would require too much of our energy, too much of our grace.” McGaha ponders the challenge of keeping such narrators at least within arm’s reach of reader sympathy, using examples from acclaimed memoirs that succeed in this goal, and concludes with three concrete strategies for developing writers to follow.

McGaha’s essay tops the list of our Craft Session treasury:

Fallibility as Art: The Deeply Flawed Narrator in Memoir by Jennifer McGaha
Genre-hopping as a Tool for Growth by Jamieson Ridenhour
The Permission to Make Your Own Rules by Dale Neal
Unlikely Sources of Tension by Eric Steineger
What is historical fiction and why do we write it? by Terry Roberts
Questions To Ask Yourself—And Others—When You Choose To Create A Fictional Character of Another Race, Gender, or Sexual Orientation by Heather Newton
Creative Nonfiction and Your Real-Life Stories: Why We Should Care by Lori Horvitz
Lessons in Writing for Children by Joy Neaves
Aesthetics of Constraint: Reflections on Flash by Beth Keefauver
Juxtaposition: A Few Comments on Craft by Tina Barr
Detail with a Life of Its Own by Michael Hopping
For Feedback and Motivation, Try a Group by Vicki Lane
Seventeen Ways of Looking: Notes on Collage by Sebastian Matthews
Our Ten Rules by the Great Smokies Writing Program Prose Master Class
Images that Move by David Madden
Being in Place by Katherine Soniat
Discover the Drama in Your Melodrama by Marjorie Klein
Writing Memoir? Get Some Skin in It by Christine Hale
Managing Coincidence by Christine Hale

A stellar collection; a testament to creative writing’s teachability. These essays reveal the variety, depth, originality, of these faculty offerings, as well as hands-on tips for putting ideas into action. Take a stroll through our archives and learn for yourself.

Elizabeth Lutyens teaches the Prose Master Class in the Great Smokies Writing Program. For more about her, go to