Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart – William Wordsworth
Someone remarked to me the other day that writing isn’t craft, it’s art. The commenter stated she isn’t a writer, but an avid reader who can tell when a writer has crafted the story, rather than allowed it to unfold.
This came in response to a discussion of a recently-published writing guide I had read, enjoyed and learned buckets from, though with a solid caveat emptor. There were elements to the guide—opinions posited by the author as writing shoulds and musts—that made me twitch. At times it seemed I was reading the Starbucks business plan: no matter where you are—be it Seattle, Shanghai, Salamanca—the store, the coffee and the service will be exactly the same. In other words, just stick to the blueprint for guaranteed success. Although I applaud Starbucks for its acumen, the coffee is unpalatable. And so it is with story.
Perhaps my fellow bibliophile was offering an antidote to the writing guide: respect the process of creation and value writing as an art form, not as a craft with a set of rules.
Yet, I disagree that writing is only art and not craft. Just as a photographer must know her camera and understand composition, a painter must know how to create perspective, understand human anatomy and mix paints on his palette, a dancer must spend hours at the barre or a pianist at the keyboard, practicing the same pieces over and over, so too must a writer understand and practice plot and structure, be proficient in grammar, and revise revise revise, becoming a better writer through the magic of hard work. Reading widely is a natural companion to writing—I’m a voracious reader and can’t imagine my life without books—but only by writing can a writer become a better writer.
And yet. My friend has a point. A very, very good one. It’s art über alles. But what is the art of writing? Hell if I know, I just got here. Ask that guy at the bar—he looks like he knows the place.
Perhaps art is imagination or inspiration, perhaps it is an ear intrinsically attuned to the music of language. Perhaps it is the calling or compulsion to create. Art is passion. Passion for the subject, certainly, but more than that. It is passion for the act of writing, it is a helplessness that says “If I didn’t write, what else would I do?”
Art is beyond rules. It is emotion. It is the breathings of your heart. It is, as Richard Hugo so poignantly stated, the way of saying you and the world have a chance.
Perhaps craft is the ability to make art that people enjoy and/or find meaningful. It is the means by which we harness the heart just enough to put words and structure to our passion.
I have a small library’s worth of writing guides. I adore them, for it is like having a shelfful of mentors who are there when, and only when, you really need them. One in particular, Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, gave me the courage to commit to the writing life; others provide motivation, inspiration, direction and enlightenment. But they are only guides. In the end, the writer must move forward on her own.
The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter. — Neil Gaiman
1) Butt in Chair.
2) Write Words.