Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Art of writing versus the Craft of writing

After writing my blog post last week, I remembered a long discussion I had with a fledgling writer several years ago now. Before moving on, though, I need to make a declaration: I hate giving advice about writing.

There’s a pretty darn good reason (at least to my mind). You see, when it comes to writing, I’m pretty well self-taught. Sure, I took a lot of English classes through high school and university (I actually have a minor in English – whatever that means. But other than one pretty poor creative writing course in university, what you see on the pages of my novels is what I taught myself basically. That’s not to mean I’m a slacker or an iconoclast making my own way through the publishing forest through sheer pigheadedness. I read at least a dozen books on how to write. I studied what the great authors did a lot. I tried to discover what worked for me before I began showing anyone my prose. Even so, it was not the best. Yes, I was told it did show promise, but need work – and from some quarters, a great deal of work.

And this is why I would never want to teach a course in creative writing. I’m self-taught. That doesn’t mean I’m bad, it means that I don’t know more than what I need to do what I do. I’ve worked with many, many self-taught musicians who are absolutely fantastic, world-class as a matter of fact, and they’ve never taken a lesson in their lives. They are wonderful musicians, but I also know how much they are held back in some ways by what they don’t know because they never studied with a few good teachers. I’m in that situation with writing: I know only what I need to know.

Anyway, back to my story. This budding author didn’t get it that there are two facets to writing: the art and the craft.

The craft of writing is something you can be taught. It starts with the basics of punctuation, sentence structure, etc., then moves on to things like voice, construction of dialogue, description, pacing, story arc, all needed if one is going to develop the chops to be accepted as a writer. The process is a long and humbling one, but I think most people who are willing to put in the necessary time and practice can learn to do it.

The art of writing is something completely different. I suppose the word “talent’ could be used instead of “art”. To my mind, you either got it or you don’t. How many books have you read where the author has a completely deft touch with their characters. They just seem to effortlessly create memorable and believable people and it’s so transparent as to appear there’s nothing special going on. Then there are other authors who have to go overboard with quirks, kinks and screwball foibles to make their characters seem like something memorable. This poor author’s fingerprints are all over the writing. Simply put: they’re forced by their ability to try too hard. Writing “artists” can take your breath away with nine or ten words, uniquely describing something, or having a character say something so profound that you remember it years later.

The best writing is seamless and invisible. It has a unique flow. It has layers upon layers of detail and subtlety, but you may not notice that because it just reads so darn smoothly. The author leads you on a journey and you’re not even aware he or she is walking right next to you. That is the art of writing. And like I said: you got it or you don’t.

It may be there in many of us who write. I like to imagine that if I just dig deeper, try harder, I might be able to reach out and grab readers, giving them a few of those “WOW” moments. It’s the hope that keeps me going – it also makes me an inveterate re-writer, trying to coax some great moments out the tangles of my words.

I don’t know if the writer I told this to ever took my advice (it was about learning the craft of writing), but I wish someone had told me the same thing when I started out. It took me a long time and a lot of tough miles for me to learn it for myself.


I’m away this week, locked away from the world (no internet or TV) in a remote log house in eastern Ontario, struggling with words and trying to coax greatness out of my prose. Hey, it could happen!

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

Rick--a great post. I, too, am self-taught. Didn't know any better. Married at 19, ordered writing books on interlibrary loan and outlined them. Studied the writers and started submitting. There are worse ways, but it's awfully hard.