I believe a lot of elements of writing can be taught. An inexperienced writer who finds the right teacher, right for him or her I mean, can learn much about things like characterization, plot, setting, novel landscape, pacing, even to a certain extent paragraphing and sentences. Putting it all together in a unique and powerful way, though, is something the writer has to find himself. And so the reason writing programs give a lot of people MFAs who never publish or who publish very little. I got an MFA after teaching myself writing by reading (to me the most the single most important thing besides writing itself a writer can do to improve) and writing. Did the MFA help my writing? Yes. Is getting an MFA for everybody? No. Some it won’t help. Some don’t need it. But for me it helped me focus on my weaknesses and helped me know myself as a writer better.
When I was learning the martial art Taekwondo I realized the importance of breaking down moves. We’d work on part of a kick and then another part and then another part. It would take a long time to put it all together and be able to do that kick right and then even longer to be able to use the kick in combination with other movements. It would take still longer to be effective sparring with the move. Some people never could get there. They knew what they should do but they couldn’t make their bodies do it. Or they couldn’t let their bodies do it. Some people could do it fairly well. Only a few were really good.
Writing is more difficult. Still, I think writing’s moves can be analyzed in ways and by isolating each aspect of writing that aspect can be improved. Whether the writer does this herself or in a program or with other writers doesn’t really matter. Whatever works.
But are there some parts of writing that can’t be taught? Sure. The writer’s unique way of looking at the world. The writer’s style, too, can’t really be taught though it can be developed. The writer’s particular feel for language is, I think, like personality. And there’s that one very magical part to writing (like with Taekwondo); everything has to work together without the writer consciously forcing it to do so (of course when rewriting the writer will be very conscious about his choices). The writer has to find that unconscious place where he becomes the story. Everything slips away. The room. His fingers moving on the keyboard. Words like setting, plot, language, characters mean nothing to him. He is what he’s writing.
That’s the place a writer needs to get. A kind of forgetting. When athletes talk about being in the zone that’s where they are. Everything the writer has ever learned is there without being there. It’s a kind of magic.