Idea Starters | Writing Programs | Advice

Advice for Students and Teachers
from our distinguished panel of writers

We asked the five Kentucky writers featured in Living by Words for their advice to students and teachers of writing. Their answers ...

Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry

The best advice to both young writers and teachers of young writers is: Read and write. I mean them in that order. Teachers unquestionably can be a help, but one learns to write only by reading earlier writers who have written well.

Jim Hall
James Baker Hall

For students: My general advice to aspiring writers is: Get into serious conversation with other aspiring writers. Respond to each other’s work-in-progress, and talk about your reading enthusiasms. Read, and then read some more, and when you find something that really speaks to you, understand that you are in the presence of a teaching and an inspiration. Work hard, write regularly. Talent without discipline is like a team without a coach and a practice field. Talent and discipline without commitment is like a ballgame without a ball, a team without sponsorship or a schedule. Until you’ve learned to work hard and regularly and committed yourself to the exploration of your gifts, you don’t have a chance to find out what you’re capable of. If you’ve got to know up front that your efforts will be rewarded, in whatever form or fashion, you’re probably in the wrong game. Trying to make art can be one of the most thrilling endeavors in the world, but it’s not for the timid or lazy or easily discouraged.

For teachers: Encouragement, not craft, is the mentor’s magic. Some wannabes need permission to write and take themselves seriously, others need the challenge of endorsement and expectation. Do not, of course, encourage indiscriminately. One’s garbage sniffer must be operational at all times, and the transaction must be honest. But encouragement is the gist of it, and its coin.

Bobbie Ann Mason
Bobbie Ann Mason

For students: If you are to learn anything about writing, you have to begin by reading. Read widely, voraciously, and beyond your grade level. Wanting to write can’t be separated from loving books. You have to be excited by language, stories, and the infinite ways a story can be told. The skills can’t be learned out of some workbook and applied like a formula. There has to be some sort of passion motivating you. Then you will seek out the techniques appropriate to tell your story. You will be familiar with many techniques because of your vast reading.

For teachers: I know nothing about teaching high school. But I hope the teacher would have a love of language and a desire to share it with the students. The teacher should encourage students to read widely. Ideally, everybody should get excited together over the sound of an extraordinary sentence or line of poetry.

Ed McClanahan
Ed McClanahan

So here’s what I would tell your hypothetical young writer:

  1. Get control of the mechanics of the language; learn the rules and principles of grammar and punctuation, practice diagramming sentences, take Latin or French or German or Spanish. Learn to use the tools of your chosen trade; get a little grease under your fingernails.

  2. Read constantly, but not just for content or plot or purport; try to LISTEN to the writing, too; cultivate your inner ear; teach yourself to hear the cadences of the language, the drumroll of the sentences. Think of whatever you’re reading as a sort of song, and the language as the melody. Notice especially what the writers you like best do with figurative language, language that creates images in the reader’s mind, brings color and life and music to the writing, makes it sing.

  3. Remember that everything—absolutely everything—is grist for your mill. There are no boring stories; there are only boring writers. Keep your eyes open, pay attention to the world around you, listen to the things people say and the way they say them. Your novel could be going on this very minute, right under your nose.

  4. Run away and join the circus at the earliest opportunity.

And then I’d tell that hypothetical teacher: Hey, you can go now; this kid already knows everything.

Gurney Norman
Gurney Norman

For students: I would say to the students that poetry and fiction writing are arts that have something to do with the soul. Writing is a calling more than it is a choice. For people who are summonsed, writing is inevitable. Writing chooses the writer. There is no age limit on receiving a summons to practice an art. There is no age limit on the human imagination. I think all creative endeavor is akin to child’s play where the imagination runs wild and free. It isn’t much encouraged in our society, but adults can be playful, too. With some luck and the right friends, they can maintain their playful natures across the long life-span. Young people inspired by writing may not always want to write “poetry and fiction.” They may want to use their creative talents and become technical innovators, creative teachers, inventors, designers, prophets, outer-space Star painters, original thinkers of all kinds. The early pursuit of any of the traditional arts can nourish the imagination and lead to new art forms no one has imagined yet. I hope all young people can keep their spirits free.

For teachers: In working with students interested in any of the arts, I would encourage the teachers to learn to see the students AS young artists. In creative writing classes, I recommend that teachers accent the positive. Look for the thing the student has done well and acknowledge it, praise it. For a long time in the beginning, forgive all errors. What counts is what the student has achieved, even if it is only a phrase, a sentence. At a later time, point out a few places where the student’s mistakes take away from what is promising. The point is to nourish and encourage beginning writers, and wait awhile to focus on a FEW of the things that could be improved. Also, in all my nearly 50 years as a writing student, a practicing writer, and a teacher of creative writing, I have never been in any writing group where there was competition among the students (or the teachers). There is no Number One. No one is “on first base.” It is an egalitarian situation where everyone in the group enjoys the group experience, even as they go about their individual work. Although this is easier to do at the college level, I believe that some such spirit is possible at all levels of study.