Ethel Merman, known for belting out Broadway songs for forty years in a voice that never needed amplification, was a big star. Along the way, apparently, a musician told her, "Ethel, never let anyone teach you to sing."
Why ruin natural talent? Of course, some who remember Merman singing "Doin' What Comes Naturally" from Annie Get Your Gun and most of the songs from Gypsy, may question the quality of that talent.
When I heard this anecdote, I immediately thought of the teaching of writing and how, all too often, it has intimated rather than encouraged students, who grow up feeling they cannot write. As one colleague once told me, "I don't remember the rules." A friend in his fifties, who yearns to write, worries about punctuation, as if his hand will be slapped if he makes a minor mistake. The computer's Spell-check frustrates him, tells him he doesn't know enough to write.
I tell him that the "rules" have little to do with generating ideas and tapping on his rich experience in producing interesting sentences. What he needs is freedom from the opinions of others, especially ones stored in his memory.
Is there such a thing as too much instruction? I suppose in music, the answer might be Yes. Writers, who are more familiar to me, need guidance and helpful readers and practice; they do not need more prescriptive advice on what is wrong with their work.
It takes a patient teacher to nurture a writing student so that he or she is not prevented from using his natural talent, from remembering that he in fact has such talent. Good writing involves a confidence in oneself along with liberation from the old voices of past teachers and editors that haunt us by saying, "You don't really know enough."
If I waited to write until I "knew enough," would I ever write anything?