The Zen of Prose Style: Writing can’t be taught (but it can be learned)

Recently, I quoted a jewel of sardonic wisdom from Joseph Epstein on what it takes to become a writer. His words were from seven years ago.

In a review essay published just this month, he ups the ante for quotability:

After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned — and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping. A. J. Liebling offers a complementary view, more concise and stripped of paradox, which runs: “The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own damn business.”

— Joseph Epstein, “Heavy Sentences,” The New Criterion, June 2011

As they say: I needed that. I’m somebody who has also taught writing for a long time — although my tenure is only a single decade, as contrasted with Epstein’s three — and who was in fact obliged to devote a large portion of this very day to observing, addressing, and attempting to remedy various stylistic “issues” (an exceptionally kind euphemism) in student writing. And I was tempted several times, when called upon to give aid, to respond by asserting that whatever the problem was, it was the student’s own damn business. I know that’s not exactly in the spirit of what Epstein’s getting at, but there it is anyway.

I think what leads to the type of teacherly churlishness I just demonstrated — and I only demonstrated it here, I assure you, and not to my students, whom I have successfully conned into thinking that I greet them from an infinite reservoir of patience and good-will — is a reigning cultural assumption here in America that originally began at the high school level and has now metastasized to the realm of higher education, and that runs diametrically counter to the cosmically sound common sense expressed by Epstein in another portion of his essay:

Learning to write sound, interesting, sometimes elegant prose is the work of a lifetime. The only way I know to do it is to read a vast deal of the best writing available, prose and poetry, with keen attention, and find a way to make use of this reading in one’s own writing. . . . First day of class I used to tell students that I could not teach them to be observant, to love language, to acquire a sense of drama, to be critical of their own work, or almost anything else of significance that comprises the dear little demanding art of putting proper words in their proper places. I didn’t bring it up, lest I discourage them completely, but I certainly could not help them to gain either character or an interesting point of view. All I could do, really, was point out their mistakes, and, as someone who had read much more than they, show them several possibilities about deploying words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, of which they might have been not have been aware. Hence the Zenish koan with which I began: writing cannot be taught, but it can be learned.

Ah, I certainly needed that, too. Thank you, Mr. Epstein, and all the gods and bodhisattvas as well, for this elegant and necessary amplication of the “you can lead a horse to water” principle. If I’m never forced to endure another professional development training seminar about student motivation, it will be too soon. For all of the things that really matter not only in the learning of writing, but in the learning of anything really important, there’s no such thing as motivating someone. There’s merely the fortuitous accident that occurs when you encounter the seed of a preexisting sensitivity, love, or passion, and find that it responds to the nourishment and cultivation you can offer.

But Americans on the whole seem to have forgotten this. We seem to think that anybody can be taught to write (or whatever), and that the failure or success of any such endeavor is entirely the responsibility of the teacher, or more broadly, “the system.”

Tomorrow I may demonstrate to my students the sound of one hand clapping.*

* It occurs to me that I might need to stress that this is not intended as a metaphor for slapping people, but as a zen thing.

Photo credit: Day 31 – One Hand Clapping by Menage a Moi used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on June 15, 2011, in Writing & Creativity and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Yesterday I taught the first class of the summer semester in freshman comp and gave a little talk that expressed a similar sentiment. “There is no way I can make you a good writer in eight weeks, but I can help you improve.”

    I saw some shocked faces.

    • They were shocked at your arrogance. They know you can’t make them better writers.

      (Is this where I should insert a smiley, a winky, or a shocked emoticon?)

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