Arts and Crafts

This is a recurring theme of mine which has come up again in a series of conversations with my wife, who is currently reading “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott, a sort of how-to-write-fiction book. It is full of very sensible advice which, if followed, would certainly help someone to turn out a reasonable product. And that is what “craft” means to me in terms of writing. How to make a product. When I went to summer day camps as a child, we had “arts and crafts” and in the crafts sections we made leather wallets and lanyards according to the practical rules of same. They turned out more or less decent depending on how well we followed instructions and how nimble our fingers were. In the arts section, we more or less did whatever we felt like doing, and that is precisely what “art” means to me, as in “the art of writing”, as opposed to the craft. From the craftsman we expect the thing we ask for. From the artist, we expect something different, something we could not have anticipated or come up with for ourselves. The artist deals in revelation. The craftsmen deals in trade.

Naturally there are markets for both of these kinds of wares, but I find it helpful to keep them in separate categories. Only once in my years of writing have I followed a formula. This was a story called “Somebody Somewhere”, a somewhat-suspenseful story based on the instructions of the great Patricia Highsmith in her own rule book, “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction“. It was definitely helpful and some people have certainly liked the book, but the general reaction has been “it was okay”, “it was what I expected”. It played out the way those things play out. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. It had a set of characters who interacted and had their own background stories which led to appropriate conflicts and resolutions. It had a useless cop (my own Inspector Stanley Mole, who in his many appearances throughout my books has yet to solve a single crime) and a crime scene left behind for the blood-moppers (though the violence occurs off-stage, where I prefer it, as well as being as brief as possible). In other words, it could be a television movie. That was enough craft for me.

It’s not being snooty or condescending to say that when it comes to fiction, I far prefer to read an artist than a craftsperson. I want something more than what I expected. If there’s action, let it have some meaning, at least. If there’s romance, let it be real. Otherwise I want ideas that never occurred to me, phrases that ring unexpected bells, images and metaphors that make me take notice. Some might argue there are those writers who are both artists and excellent craftsfolk. You could point to people like Tolstoy, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Guy du Maupassant and many others, certainly. There’s no doubt about that. But my favorites (and I’m somewhat eclectic I know) are all on the far side of the seesaw.

I’m also thinking of this because I’ve been reading a few things by Roberto Bolano. I’ve tried before (The Savage Detectives and By Night in Chile) without success because of my own particular buttons (I’ve had enough of twenty-somethings drinking and fucking. Seriously. And then there’s the whole bloodbath thing which I simply can’t deal with anymore. An isolated death here and there, okay, but non-stop fighting and slaughter puts me to sleep faster than anything – I’ve recently had to put down otherwise strong books because of this pattern), so it was a matter of finding books by him that didn’t push those. “Monsieur Pain” was one such book. It resonated with my fondness for dadaists and surrealists and experimental dabblers, as well as my fascination with outsiders, losers and generally pathetic individuals (am I identifying much?). It was also full of wonderfully interesting bits and pieces. I’m now reading a collection of stories called “The Insufferable Gaucho” and also enjoying that. I don’t suppose I’ll ever be a fan of his masterpieces (such as 2666, which has carnage written all over it), but I’m very glad I found a path I could follow into his writing.

Anyway, my whole view of the arts versus crafts thing was summed up nicely in an interview with Kurt Vonnegut, in which he said “Art is not for making a living. Art is for growing your soul.”

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6 thoughts on “Arts and Crafts

  1. I have had similar thoughts about the “craft” of writing. I have also read parts of Bird by Bird and while it has some excellent writing advice in it I am still uneasy with crafts as art, and yet every? writing book I have read/browsed takes this stance. Maybe though we need to be crafty before artistic? Or maybe it is just the only way to write about how to write, or maybe those that can do don’t teach?

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    • all of the above, maybe, and also it’s different for everyone! i included a link at the bottom of the post to a how-to-write article by H.P. Lovecraft. It’s incredibly detailed and precise. He clearly put some thought into it, but really, who the heck wants to write like H.P. Lovecraft?

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  2. Ray Bradbury has a great book on writing called Zen in the Art of Writing. His advice is a lot different than Anne Lamott’s. I like both books, his is much more magical though.
    I’m hoping that for myself, I can find the balance between writing as an art and writing as a trade. I like when the things I create are worth something to others. It’s a gratifying experience, but it involves some anticipation of the audience, which puts it more on the “craft” side of the seesaw. Still, it teeters with the art side as well.
    Maybe each piece of writing fits on one side of the seesaw or the other, sometimes a bit of both.
    I liked reading this, and I like all the many things it makes me think about. Definitely more food for thought!

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    • I’m going to look for Bradbury’s book – thanks for that. It’s definitely a balancing act, especially when you have readers in mind. I was so used to writing without any readers (for so many years) that I simply assumed they did not exist. Now they only exist in the ether of the internet!

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  3. Maybe learning the craft of writing first is better, so that you get the bones of it, the structure. Then from there you can learn to dabble in more creative and original territory. You can’t create the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel without first learning to paint.

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    • It certainly helps to know some words and how to form sentences with them! We can all pretty much paint by numbers, once we have a brush in our hands. Writing by numbers is similar. Readers are definitely put off when the expected structure isn’t there, but sometimes maybe that’s good for them. It can’t just be the same old thing every time. Good guys, bad guys, no worries!

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