You Can’t Teach Passion

I have volunteered to teach a brief writing workshop at the school my daughters attend.  The workshop will take place on three successive Friday nights in January.  Each session will be ninety minutes long, and I plan to touch on some writing basics:  character development, point of view and voice, pacing and narrative.  It’s part of a fund raising campaign for the school:  the people taking my course, and those offered by other local professionals in other fields, will pay a fairly hefty fee that will go entirely to the school.  Seems like a good cause.

I bring this up for a couple of reasons.  One, while there are other workshops and courses being offered for these Friday nights, the writing workshop is the only one that has attracted what the organizers of the program regard as a quorum.  Each instructor was able to fix a minimum enrollment figure — I set five as my minimum, figuring that a workshop-style setting works best with a certain creative critical mass – -and we’ve already got that many people signed up, with a couple of more weeks to go.  And two, the ages of the people who have signed up range from fourteen to (about) sixty.

Let me very clear:  neither of these things has anything to do with me, and everything to do with the appeal of writing itself.  Here at SFNovelists, we often discuss the fact that almost everyone seems to believe that he or she can be a writer.  Sometimes when we comment on this we sound rather jaded (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone — see this post).  But this seems different to me.  The people who have signed up for this workshop — the teens and the adults — are so interested in writing, so committed to learning the craft, that they have shelled out a fair amount of money to attend, and have chosen to give up several Friday nights.  One of the younger attendees actually doesn’t know yet that s/he will be coming to the workshop.  It’s a gift from his/her parents, who obviously feel that this a gift that their teenager will appreciate.

There is, I believe a writing imperative.  People want to write (and read) stories — fiction and non-fiction.  It is hardwired into us.  And for all the cynicism about celebrity authors I expressed in that other post, I actually think it’s pretty cool.  As I’ve said before, I write because I love it, because if I didn’t write, I’d go crazy.  But I also write because it’s my profession.  There are times when the money side of what I do actually diminishes the joy I get out of my work.  This is a tough business and these are hard times.  I find it all too easy to take the joy of writing for granted, to focus all my emotional energy on my latest commercial success or disappointment. As it happens, I’m in a pretty good place right now, but I know all too well how transitory these moods can be.  One or two setbacks, and I’ll be obsessing over the commercial stuff again.

And maybe that’s why I’m thinking so much about the workshop and those folks who have signed up for it.  They aren’t professionals.  They may have ambitions in that direction, but right now they are driven by the passion more than anything else.  I think that I have something to teach them, and I hope that they’ll find the workshop valuable.  But I expect that I’ll benefit as much from my time with them as they will from listening to whatever I have to say.  Because you can’t teach the love of writing.  It’s there or not.  On the other hand, you can lose that love, or least lose sight of it.  I’m hoping their unalloyed passion will be contagious, that it will help me stave off those inevitable bouts of cynicism.

This is a great way to make a living.  It’s a great way to pass the time even when it’s not a job.  It’s good for me to remind myself of that now and then.  And sometimes I need others to help me remember.

Happy holidays to all of you.  I hope you have a prosperous, productive, and creative 2011!

David B. Coe

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  1. 1. Mike Barker

    Hi, David

    For some reason, the title, “You Can’t Teach Passion,” kind of itched whenever I saw it. So I’ve been thinking about why that feels like fingernails on a blackboard to me.

    I think I can probably agree with you that we can’t teach passion, if we’re talking about teaching as “sage on the stage” lecture presentations designed to fill time with the teacher talking and the students scribbling, sleeping, or staring into space, but probably not really engaged. Unfortunately, too many of us have learned to define teaching and learning in those terms.

    On the other hand, that kind of teaching often does a very good job of eliminating passion. Even someone who has a dream, a vision, a fire burning often finds that kind of teaching acting as a tremendously effective dream quencher, blackout curtain, and fire extinguisher. Take a kid who’s lively, outgoing, interested in the world around them, set them down in a orderly classroom with good teaching discipline, and pretty soon you’re likely to have a quiet drone.

    But, despite the excellent methods of eliminating passion that we have developed (documented at length as killer phrases in What a Great Idea! 2.0 by Chic Thompson — that’s nonsense, that’s irrelevant, that’s unproven, that’s dangerous, that’s not salable, etc. etc. etc. all of which say “No” to passion), we’ve also got some ways to encourage passion. See Michalko’s Thinkertoys, Roger van Oech’s A Whack on the Back of the Head and A Kick In the Seat of the Pants, or Edward de Bono’s various books, among others. Ways to take that little flicker of interest and excitement, to blow gently on it and provide tinder to help it grow into a raging flame. To give passion creative outlets and let the dream become reality.

    You can’t teach passion. But you can quench it, so easily. And, on the gripping hand, you can encourage passion. Heck, you might even find a teacher cheering you on. And that’s real learning.

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Mike, I absolutely agree. Bad teaching can kill passion; good teaching can nourish it, enhance it, even reveal a passion that hadn’t been recognized before. But I don’t believe that one can teach passion to another. It’s there — previously revealed or still buried — or it’s not. My opinion. Thanks very much for the thoughtful comment.

  3. 3. Alma Alexander

    I’ve long held the opinion that writing, as and of itself, is teachable inasmuch as the CRAFT of writing is concerned. You can teach somebody things such as grammar and punctuation, metaphor, style, trope, all that stuff that has actual teachable ideas in it.

    You cannot teach somebody how to tell a story which they don’t have inside of them. Oh, you can tell them how to tell A story, and often brilliantly, in perfect and frequently scintillating language – but if there’s no THERE there all of that language is just a pile of words. It is this, I think, that you are talking about when you speak of “passion” – and if I am right about that then I agree with you, you can’t teach that.

    Yes, you can encourage it. Yes, you can nurture it. Yes, you can help it along if a newbie falters, and offer encouragement, and advice, and mentorship, and all that goes with that. But all that presupposes that the student already HAS that passion, not that you are out to instill it.

    Good post. Thanks.

  4. 4. Mike Barker

    I’m still queasy about this… see, I’ve been running an online writing workshop for lo these many years, and one of the regular concerns is the person who comes in moping about not having it (passion, writing muse, inspiration, whatever). And most of the time, with a little prodding and pushing, we can find it. They were looking in the wrong place, expecting words to magically fall from heaven, or whatever. Oh, they may not turn into the greatest writer in the world, but there’s something there. I’m just really nervous about telling someone they don’t have it, or even accepting them telling me they don’t have it. So often it’s just a matter of figuring out what really excites them and how to channel that into a form that they are comfortable with, instead of trying to get them to meet my standards?

    I think I’d agree that you can’t instill it. And there are clearly students that aren’t going to react here and now to this method or that. But I think that just means they aren’t ready, or this isn’t the right place and time for them. But I still think they can, when it works.

    Good discussion, and interesting thoughts. Thanks!

  5. 5. David B. Coe

    Alma, thanks.

    MIke, I think that my point is this: you say you’re teaching an online writing workshop. And I would say that the people who are in that workshop — who have already made a choice to be part of the writing community you’re working with — have proven that they have the passion just by showing up. They may be stuck, they may be struggling, but the passion is there. Otherwise they wouldn’t be making the effort. And, in my opinion, you can’t teach that. If someone has the pasion and is ready to do the work, then yes, you can teach just about anything. But they have to make that leap first. And yes, this is a great discussion. Thanks again for the comments.


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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe ( is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (, he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (, and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.



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