I don’t know Jack. There is no mysterious rite; I know how to write, right?
I have been spending quite a bit of time for these past few weeks describing, sharing, defining, illustrating, and confusing some friends with my ideas on the contrast between the Art and the Craft of writing. Most new writers seek to be taught some magic that will enable them to be great. The revelation of experience is that magic is magic; there is no teachable explanation.
Both ends of that symbiotic phrase, Art and Craft, are unique to the individual writer; it can be learned, but not taught. The story (and its purpose) is our art. The structure, syntax, characterization, tempo, and the circular relationships between conflict and resolution, between actions and consequences, and between antagonist and protagonist, all bringing together the art of the story, that is your personal craft. I cannot write your story, nor can I write in your voice. My talent (if I may be so bold) is built on a thousand morsels gleaned from others and melded together into my own unique style. But my selection of which morsels to pick and how I assimilate them, is mine and mine alone. You, as a writer, must harvest your own.
There was a time that I thought I knew how to write. I had published countless articles, written a monthly newsletter over several years, spent time drafting motions for legal counsel, I wrote an FTC franchise disclosure, and I even drafted a few chapters of the next great American novel. I knew it all.
Surprise! I don’t know Jack, in fact, I’m not even sure if that is his real name. I’ve been chasing this concept of being a seasoned, experienced, knowledgeable writer for more years than many of you have lived. And every day, I find there is more to learn.
Oh, I still have stories left untold, some written without re-writes, some outlined, some nothing more than an idea noted in a journal. The art side of me flourishes. That magical art either exists in someone, or it doesn’t; it is a gift, my gift. I must admit that I have perused many dissertations, theses, even paper-printed books that boast of the secrets to creating a story by rote formula, but then there are also stores that specialize in assembly-line paintings. Maybe I am too proud and ambitious, or maybe I’m a bit of a snob, but I don’t consider either of those art. I think stories have to begin in the depths of your subconscious, and claw their way through your heart, soul and mind, borrowing a little from each, until it spills like blood from a lacerated vein onto paper, revealing its secrets to your reader.
I am a literary moralist; my stories are always based on the consequences of actions demonstrated through irony. I witness and record ironic twists almost daily, so I guess I should just open a vein and write until I drop. But then I think how incredibly magnificent it was that Poe identified Legrand in The Gold-Bug as a Huguenot, an old German word meaning “oath-taker.” Subtle, huh? Or how in spite of its enduring acclaim, I cannot enjoy Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flats because it is told by an observant third person narrator and no one in the story survives. Am I too anal to think that an observant narrator had to be there to observe? Then I think how Hemmingway proofread his writing, sentence by sentence, starting at the end and working forward to be sure the construction was not masked by the story’s momentum. I remember the brilliance of Morrison’s Paradise, and her very first line, “They shoot the white girl first.” Talk about a hook! Why can’t I write like that?
No, I don’t know Jack. I hope someday we will meet and I can get to know him, but until then I will recognize my own imperfections without self-loathing. I will continue to practice and fail, re-write and improve, study and learn, and occasionally bleed along the way. I will collaborate in writing circles, and workshop with others; I will share what I have learned, and learn from others.
Take it or leave it; that is my advice to you, too.
If you have that itch, scratch it. Chances are there is something magical just below the surface. Don’t worry about how your baby looks when it is first born, it will grow into a beautiful progeny of yours. Nurture your child, teach and be taught, by the time your story reaches maturity, you will never question its DNA.