No One Can Teach You to Write

In 2019, I completed my MFA in Creative Writing at The Sewanee School of Letters, a still fairly new program that merits more recognition. That year, I also attended Under the Volcano, a guided writing residency in the pueblo mágico of Tepoztlán, México. I heartily recommend both these programs to everyone.

The fiction group at Under the Volcano in Tepoztlán Mexico 2019. Nine people lined up against a stone wall.
The fiction writers group at Under the Volcano 2019: (l. to r.) Ayşegül Savaş (assistant leader), Elizabeth Hutchings, Adam Foulds (our leader with a Tepoztlán perro callejero), Roxana von Kraus, Keetje Kuipers, Gina María Balibrera, Anna Maconochie, D.P. Snyder, Pia Jensen.

Still, no one can teach you how to write.

The success of a writing program is principally in the hands of the organizers’ tireless labor to organize a sin fin of details. But it also depends on participants themselves: their generosity and compassion toward their fellow writers (or lack thereof) has the greatest impact on whether writers end up inspired or defeated by the experience. 

Writing programs can have the vibe of corporate networking events. The “stars” are often pre-selected, chosen for reasons that may be obscure. But the most interesting writers are rarely the cool kids: they are the awkward people with weird obsessions, those who struggle to dress appropriately and keep to the margins. The ones who suffer from tricky health and shy away from cameras like bats from sunlight. They like being alone, which in itself makes them uncool. Contrary to popular myth they are usually not heavy drinkers, drug addicts, cigar-smokers, or prone to notorious behavior. They may lack tattoos. And they can feel hampered by the outsized role that youth and physical beauty play in modern publishing.

At their best, writing programs provide a chance for the uncool to find their tribe and, if they are lucky, a mentor in a star who, underneath it all, is also profoundly uncool.  

Mexican author Jaime Mesa recently tweeted: “Todos quieren publicar pero nadie quiere ser escritor.” Everyone wants to publish but no one wants to be a writer. This is absolutely true. If great writers have the fortune to find readers for their work, it is ultimately not because of writing programs: It is because they are courageous. And because sometimes beautiful accidents happen.

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