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Workshop: Blog

David Bergen: Can writing be taught?

The Giller Prize-winning author of The Time in Between looks at what it means to "teach" someone how to write. 


Can you teach someone to write fiction? Every year over a seven-month period, I 'teach' writers through Humber College who are working on a short story collection or a novel. I do this to supplement my income, and, as I like to convince myself that this job is more than mercantile, I also do this to mentor beginning writers. However, I'm not sure I always do a good job. 

Oh, I know what I like in a story (surprise and heart and passion); and I sometimes know what it takes to write a novel or a story—the structure, the engine, the sideways glance in order to see something fresh; and I believe I can avoid cliché, though I sometimes fall into the trap of the clichéd situation. And yet, even as I try to convey these concepts, I perhaps fall short in my explanation. Or maybe the writer doesn't agree with me, and to that I say, 'Good on you.' To write is to be arrogant, to believe you have something to say, and you are going to say it in a spanking new way.

A mentor, a 'teacher,' is like an editor. I absolutely value my editor, who is my teacher. She pushes me to open up a story or a character, to not be so obtuse, to not assume so much, to be more careful. I usually submit a novel at a certain number of words, and when I've finished working with my editor, the novel is longer than when I submitted it. I need my editor to help me open up the story. Do I disagree with her advice? Sometimes, but that usually leads to a discussion that leads me elsewhere and helps me to see what I am trying to do. The process is more one of questions and exploration and good direction.

An editor is an accomplice, looking in from the outside. That objective view is essential. We don't write in a vacuum, and we don't publish in a vacuum. At least not well. Samuel Beckett said that every attempt is a failure in some way; the trick is to try again and fail better. An editor, a teacher, a mentor, reading the best writers—these can all help you do that."


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