Thursday, August 4, 2011

When craft becomes art again

Craft: a skilled activity or profession, the skill to carry out work
Art: a creative activity, the expression of creative skill and imagination to create objects of beauty

For quite a few years, I watched the writing community trying to defend its passion by redefining writing as a hard-learned craft. Success was based on paid publication, which came about by learning the craft. After all, sitting behind the computer, manipulating sentences, tossing out paragraphs, adding new scenes, fretting over pacing, changing points of view isn't easy. Nor is getting published, most of us know.

Yes, I agree, we do improve as we learn about writing, just as one does with any craft. And it is rewarding to be published (from a craft standpoint rather than financial).

But blog after blog talked about "how to" grab your audience, "how to" plot the perfect tale, "how to" get to know your character by naming what shoes he or she wore. I was wary. Yes, there were some valuable tips in all the crafting exercises, but something seemed to be missing. The writing process began to feel like something you could fit into a template, that you should put into a template to achieve that perfect format that sells.

But I couldn't quite fit some of my favorite books into that template. The Rushdie novel I was reading certainly didn't follow any of the advice on character development and even less on pacing. Could Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler ... have been written according to rules?

Now, there's a new trend in the writers' blogging world: backlash, audacity, calling what we do an art once again. A romantic notion? Think about it. Which scenes are the best in your latest work? Which scene gave you that eureka moment that sent a dopamine surge through your body, a kind of ecstasy that everything worked? Where did that initial rush come from when you first found the story brewing, when you couldn't sleep at night?

Odds are it wasn't when practicing the exercises of craft. Odds are it was a subconscious moment, some magic that pulled everything together and created a kind of beauty you couldn't wait to share.

There are many things to love in writing. Editing your rough draft to make it clean is a satisfying feeling. Finding a new point of view that really lets you feel the characters offers the reward of trying a new technique that works. But when you try that technique, when you slip into that new point of view, what happens? At that point, are you crafting or are you letting the imagination do its thing?

In a recent lecture by Luis Alberto Urrea, he began by saying, "This is not a craft lecture, this is a being-lecture." One of the attendees summarized the lecture, saying that he talked about why people write, the heart of why, "the art of intuition," rather than the how-to's. And it was beautiful, and people cried.

I'm reading blogs now that say, after you learn the rules, remember to break them. I'm reading books on writing that say don't try to know everything; the joy is in the mystery. People are getting tired of the formula, I suspect. Writers are beginning to admit that their job is fun, and yes, a little bit mysterious. The subconscious is fascinating and we shouldn't always be in left-brain mode. We shouldn't have to hold art to the same tests of success as a company's financial records.

Writing is fun when we get to play in it, when we're not churning out the next book to meet the marketer's demand.

Story after story can be written to fit a form that's familiar to people, and they'll eat them up with the same unconscious ease that we do fast food. It's good sometimes. It serves the purpose. But you don't feel it in your gut. You don't get knocked out of complacency. You don't marvel at the crazy mystery of life, how chaos can become the most beautiful pattern just by intuiting the path that we all join on somewhere in our imagination and heart.

So next time you sit down to write, I recommend forgetting all you've learned, just for a little while. Write nonstop and feverishly, and don't let that conscious mind judge what you're doing. It's pretend. It's being a kid again and letting go. See what happens. It's amazing fun, this creative process we were given. That's what it's meant to be. And when you sit down later to refine that product of untethered passion, give it a little leash. Take a chance.

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