In science fiction circle, it’d be utterly uncontroversial to say that a person doesn’t really need instruction in order to become a good writer. Instruction is fine. Maybe it even helps a little bit. But too many writers have succeeded without any form of instruction–no classes, no mentorship, no critique circle–for anyone to believe that the only path to success is through the workshop.
In literary fiction, it feels a little different. The workshop is baked right in. Many literary writers earn their livelihoods from teaching creative writing. Furthermore, admission to creative writing programs is both a reward for writing process and a means of facilitating future success. And workshops are also one of the main social activities in literary fiction; literary writers don’t have conventions (well, aside from AWP), they have summer workshops.
Because of this, I think it’s a more common belief in lit-fic circles that some kind of instruction is necessary in order to become a successful writer. On the face of it, this is not an absurd belief. It’s difficult to imagine someone becoming a successful violinist or dancer without classes. And while there are some untutored visual artists, they’re certainly unusual enough to be notable as “outsider artists.”
In fact, there are very few things that one can do well without being trained in them. Even something as simple as driving or riding a bike usually requires an instructor. Given that, it almost seems absurd to suggest that someone can learn to do something as complex as writing a novel without guidance.
Nonetheless, I have to say that writing fiction is not like playing the violin or riding a bike. It’s just different. What separates writing is its relative lack of technique. Instruction is primarily useful for imparting mechanical techniques. Instruction tells us how to hold the bow and how to make the notes and how to move in a certain way. But language doesn’t require nearly as much technique. We all know how to use language. Our brains are programmed to do it. The more we speak and hear and read and write, the more original, compact, and powerful our use of language becomes.
Using language to tell stories is something that we do very naturally. It’s more like walking than it is like dancing. Even someone who’s never read a book has plenty of experience in telling stories.
Given that, writing a good story is a matter of: a) recognizing and selectively utilizing the various models for story-telling; b) avoiding tired language and story elements; and c) injecting some startling new element into your story.
The workshop can tell you when you’re doing b). But it cannot give you an intuitive sense of a) and it definitely can’t help you with c).
*I always love to compare writing fiction to playing the violin, because (to me) they seem as different as two artistic practices can possibly be.