Raymond 0. Arsenault, Ph.D. Professor, College of Arts and Sciences
Peter Meinke, Ph.D. Emeritus Professor, Eckerd College
University of South Florida St. Petersburg
When someone asks what I am studying in graduate school, I usually answer "English," occasionally "writing," but rarely "creative writing." I try to leave it at "English" because when I do slip up and say "creative writing," too often the response is a skeptical look followed by a question along the lines of, "Can you really be taught how to write?" The implication is, of course, that you've either got it or you don't, and that is that. This is old hat by now, but for some reason it won't go away, no matter how many major authors come out of MFA programs or how many authors teach at them. I often shrug off the question because I know that the reading public still harbors fantastic ideas about the magic of writing. But I am always a little surprised and curious when someone in academia or another branch of the arts asks this question. Scholars of history, philosophy, anthropology, and literature, as well as those of most other fields in the arts and sciences, are taught and learn how to write essays. None of them come out of high school ready to present conference papers or publish articles in peer-reviewed journals. They learn their craft from teachers, professors, and associates in the same way that a fiction writer or poet learns from instructors, colleagues, and editors. For my money, writing a really good essay, an engaging and provocative one, takes every bit as much skill and creativity as writing a short story or poem. Dealing with facts and theories is always a tricky business, and incorporating them into a stylistically and rhetorically fluid text is even more so. With fiction you can make up all the rules as you go along. Yet I never hear any one ask, "Can you really be taught how to write an essay?"
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Cavanaugh, Darien, "The Ten-Year Hike to the Starting Line: One Writer's Journey from Bad to Competent" (2006). USFSP Honors Program Theses (Undergraduate). 73.