Friday, May 16, 2014

The Craftsmanship Talk


"Good writing is a function of good living."

A student in my writing class asked about plot and would I show him how to develop plot. Construction is story-specific, I said. Plot grows out of character, I said. Put three characters in this room in this chapter with these motivations, I said, because each will act on new information differently.

He went away wholly dissatisfied, grumbling about why didn’t the instructor just explain the process. The truth is, we learn to construct stories by doing.

Reading counts. To write well, one must read broadly and outside of one’s genre – poetry, how-to manuals, history, biography, philosophy.

Several writers in my genre of speculative fiction write grim-dark stories where the landscape is littered with bodies, and the ability to describe a sword fight defines quality of writing. So many characters die in these stories that the plot unravels with no hero left standing who actually succeeds. Recently, the level of gore, torture, and unusual acts of revenge is so extreme (in competition with other writers) that I must turn away from my first love. I don’t want to read about torture. I’ve never seen torture or dismemberment. I don’t want to write about gruesome ways to die. 


Discipline counts. This quality is not the same as selfishness (contrary to what my friends claim).

My Daddy built houses and lived entirely inside his head. He missed no family obligations and was present at each ball game, prom and graduation for five kids. One day we waited in silence for a bus that would take me back to college. To fill the awkward moment, I asked what he was thinking. Daddy talked about a building design and how he wanted to improve where the eaves met the roof joint.

I thought about all the family gatherings and how Daddy DIDN’T bore us with design questions or business concerns, but only participated in the moment. To me, that’s discipline – completing his work to his standards without asking for constant reinforcement from others.


Observing others counts. To write well, one must observe the full panorama of emotion including the darker urges that we sidestep – hatred, revenge, jealousy, fear, regret, grief.

I had a painter friend who loved visiting the art supply store where she smelled the paper and handled the brushes and got lost in the colored paint section.  We could not share about our specific projects because I don’t care how the paper smells, and she didn’t care that I could alliterate while riding the bus.

My artist friend and I could engage the craftsmanship talk about lessons learned, reiterative renditions of the same artwork, improved skills over a career, the isolation of pure creativity.  How talking at the dinner table about the plot of the current chapter I was developing was boring to everybody else.  And so was my love of Kafka. We had those talks.


Persistence counts. When I look at some early stories I wrote, I have to laugh.  I can see that I imitated Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, Joyce Carol Oates, even Kafka! I can see that I was reaching for ideas and metaphors that were outside my range.

Without those early stories, however, I could not have written anything worth publishing. We learn by doing. We find ourselves through dissatisfaction with our results. We experience the need for patience and planning because the work is awful and wasteful. All artists are terrible at it. All first drafts suck. Later works sometimes have value for the consumer.


Creativity counts. This most elusive quality can only be acknowledged where present. The art critic Robert Hughes wrote a biography some years ago about Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, the Spanish artist famous for his painting Third of May.

Goya began his long career as the official portrait painter for the royal family. I’m certain that as a young man he painted to please a patron. But as the decades passed, Goya’s only true critic or competition was himself.

Goya experienced revolution, counter-revolution, invasion, repression, and finally socialism – and fully exposed the regrets and comforts and fear and beauty and horror that he saw around him. In retrospect (according to Hughes) Goya’s creativity went beyond the social pressures, and he reflected some essential truth about his world.

Robert Hughes writes: "And it is Goya's ability to see that leaves one silent with admiration."

Some qualities of craftsmanship we can develop by observing, trying, analyzing, and trying again. But the creativity thing – um, not so much.

We were meant to ruin our lives in service to art. That’s the price and the privilege.

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