March 1, 2021
Some writing is so bad, it’s beyond the help of even the best editor. This idea reminded the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal of a dry cleaner’s receipt he once read: “Some stains can be removed only by the destruction of the material itself.” I read this gem in Joe Moran’s wonderful new book First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing…and Life. I heartily recommend Moran’s book, but after reading it, I found myself wondering if this advice should be applied not just to writing, but to (would-be) writers themselves. Are there some people who just shouldn’t try to write, whose entire body of work is beyond help?
There’s some bad writing out there from some bad writers. But fortunately, most people who can’t write know they can’t write. (This is obviously good for people in my profession.) A lot about writing can be taught, but not everything. I think there’s a certain amount of natural ability that’s required. I think you can learn about sentence structure and syntax and organization and plot development and character description and other parts of the writing process so as to better hone your craft. But something of the craft has to be there to begin with.
In my book Writing Memoir, I talk about my experience in fourth grade learning to play the violin. My violin teacher was Mr. Reichenfeld and if you wanted Mr. Reichenfeld to teach you to play an instrument, you had to pass a test. He’d sit you down beside him at a piano and he’d hit a key. You then had to sing that key. If he hit middle C, you had to sing middle C. You could either do it or you couldn’t. If you couldn’t, he’d apologize but say the violin wasn’t for you, and that was that. His reasoning was simple: if you had no ear for music, how could you properly play it?
I believe it’s the same with writing. There’s a certain natural ability that you have to possess to be a writer, and nobody can give that ability to you. If you don’t have an “ear” for good writing, you’re not going to be able to create it. (Of course, having an ear for it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll excel at it. I passed Mr. Reichenfeld’s test but quickly discovered that I wasn’t cut out to be a violinist. My lessons stopped after one year, much to the relief of everyone in the household who’d been subjected to my evening practice sessions.)
In other words, Moran’s book, and other prescriptive writing guides, can help writers, but they’ll do nothing to help the non-writer who might, nevertheless, be attempting the craft. I have found that even the professional writer (using me as a handy example), often doesn’t get a lot out of these guides, at least initially. As I read Moran’s book, chock full of wisdom, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Yogi Berra’s lament to a well-intentioned batting coach: “How am I supposed to think and bat at the same time?” I have found these books work best for post-mortem work—why did this piece of writing not work?—rather than as guides for how to proceed from scratch. And for that, they can be invaluable.
Either way, no amount of teaching is going to help the non-writer. If you can write, write. If you can’t, resign yourself to the fact that you can’t and delegate. There’s no shame in this; fifty-percent of books in your local bookstore are either ghosted or heavily edited. Chances are, you’re probably good at something else. Not everyone can be a writer just as not everyone can be a violinist. Take it from me. And if you don’t believe me, ask Mr. Reichenfeld.