THE BLOG
02/10/2014 12:13 pm ET Updated Apr 12, 2014

The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life: On Being Teachable

It's recommendation-writing season again in academia, that period of months, from November to February, when a professor spends her spare time conjuring new and unique combinations of words and phrases to sing the praises of her students in letters that will gain them entry into graduate programs (no recommendation-inflation here; I don't agree to recommend a student I wouldn't praise). Since I became director of the Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop two years ago, it's also become recommendation-reading season as we comb through stacks of trifold letters trying to get a sense of the students we want to constitute our next class.

Over twenty-five years of living in the creative writing world have taught me to value certain watch-words in these letters; and, they're not always the ones you might think. Talent is one, persistence, another, passion and work ethic (or their synonyms) still others. But, perhaps the most important descriptors I scan for are those that indicate a student is teachable. It's also the highest praise I give. Another way of saying this is that the student in question wants to further his education as a writer because he is curious, because he likes to learn new things and doesn't believe he knows it all yet, and because he is thrilled at the prospect of bringing all that he is learning to bear on his nascent writing abilities.

Why are these qualities so important? Well, most of all, because in my experience, they seem to result in better writing and better writers. Another admittedly more selfish reason: Students like this are a joy to teach, and while they certainly exist, in an increasingly test-driven society that rewards innate ability, they are not as common as you might think.

As anyone who has taken and taught dozens of creative writing workshops over the years knows, certain tropes emerge out of this particular classroom. One of them is the student who doesn't feel she has anything to learn, who is in the workshop only because she is seeking a teacher who will quickly reinforce her beliefs that, unlike her classmates, her writing has already "arrived." She disdains most of the readings, unless they confirm her current knowledge, and likewise resists any information the teacher might be trying to impart that doesn't match up with the literary world as she has understood it up until that point (especially if it doesn't match up with the teachings of former mentors who have already confirmed her talent).

These kinds of students are difficult to mentor, resistant as they are to your attempts to impart what they don't already know. But what is most frustrating is that decades of experience that tells me that these kinds of students don't usually succeed. Ultimately, they don't grow as writers. Eventually, whatever talent they started out with pales in comparison to that of their peers who are open to learning, and whose work is developing by leaps and bounds. Ultimately, they stop persisting because their work ethic is dependent on their work being praised and their genius acknowledged.

A recent article by Maria Popova in Brainpickings.org, "Fixed vs. Growth -- The Two Basic Mindsets that Shape Our Lives" bears out these observations. According to the article, "a 'fixed mindset' assumes that our character, intelligence and creative ability are static givens which we can't change in any meaningful way... and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence." On the other hand, "a 'growth mindset' thrives on challenge and sees failure not as unintelligence, but as a heartening springboard for growth." Not surprisingly, "the consequences of believing intelligence and personality can be developed... are remarkable."

I mean think about it: If you believe this, you will be open to learning more as a writer or as an artist. And if you don't believe it, if you think your talents are innate or "carved in stone," you will act out of an "urgency to prove yourself again and again."

Popova's article is in part a summary/review of Stanford Psychologist Carol S. Dweck's book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, in which she reports countless studies that support the triumph of the growth model. In fact, Dweck even studied subject's brain waves as they "answered difficult questions and received feedback," and found that those with a fixed mindset were "only interested in hearing feedback that reflected directly on their present ability... tuning out information that could help them learn and improve," and even going so far as ignoring "the right answer when they had gotten a question wrong."

What does this mean for aspiring writers and the writing classroom? As a writer, it's better to be teachable, to cultivate in yourself, as the article explains, a "passion for learning, rather than a hunger for approval." I'm reminded of a student who once cornered me after a community writing workshop in which everyone had spent a great deal of time discussing his story, commending what worked and making thoughtful suggestions for improvement. "They obviously don't like it," he said conspiratorially, in a last ditch effort to get me to agree with him that "they" were wrong. Unfortunately, "they" had given this writer's story a great compliment: They had read it carefully, and they had given a lot of consideration to how he might make it better. Because this writer was acting out of a "fixed mindset," however, he refused to listen to anything but praise for his work. Sadly, this mindset will never get him anywhere.

As teachers, we must work hard to cultivate the growth mindset in our students, to see their writing as continually "in-process," rather than finished products deserving only the polarities of praise or disapproval. We need to create classrooms that praise risk and acknowledge the basic fact that the path to artistic success really is paved with failures. Finally, the aspiring writers I have known with the most "fixed mindsets" are no longer writing and that, I believe, is the gravest failure of all.