Craft Cheese

“The artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal, but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning.” Kandinsky

Craft (I don’t like the word) is important for a writer, but it is not writing. I think if you love writing and you have something to say, you should be driven to perfect your technical skills simply because you want people to read your words. You’ve succeeded when your words serve your meaning rather than obscure it.

It takes a lot of discipline, it’s not easy, but it isn’t writing.

My piano teacher — Mr. Baer — said to me when I was, what, thirteen? “Martha, you have a lot of feeling for the music, but you don’t have technique.” In his thick German accent, he pronounced it, “Technic” and I think that’s closer to what he meant. Everyone has a technique (I had a sloppy one), but technical ability is something we have to develop. I ended up with a big book of exercises that I was supposed to practice to improve my skill. Music isn’t just feeling; there’s something behind it and I needed to develop it. I didn’t, for a number of reasons, but mainly because it took more discipline than I had at that point in my life, AND I already knew I was never going to play in front of audiences. I’d never even made it through a recital, I was so terrified. I got a lesson there, though, that I didn’t understand for years.

Martin of Gfenn was a long project — fourteen years all together. Ultimately, it was a lesson in the technical side of writing. If you’re curious, here is a post that tells you what happened. It was a case of “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Truman Capote came back from the dead (well, kind of) to teach me about style.

One woman — from Germany — whom I hoped would want to translate Martin of Gfenn to German, read (and translated) the first chapter then refused the project (though it would have been lucrative for both of us). She refused the project because she didn’t like the way I write. “I prefer Henry James,” she said, “and you don’t write like Henry James.” No, I don’t, and I don’t want to (shudder). But there’s no disputing personal taste.

Everyone has an axe to grind about writing. Proofreading is important, but bad proofreading (it’s inexcusable) doesn’t make a person a bad writer, just a careless and disrespectful one. Homonyms are booby traps. We’ve known since our first Dr. Seuss book that stories have a “narrative arc” and that characters need to be developed and in harmony with themselves. Yadda yadda. The thing is, you can know all this and still write shit. You need a little of that “pixie dust” — inspiration.

Painting: The Muses by Kandinsky

9 thoughts on “Craft Cheese

  1. I’m not big on “the craft” of writing, but I am in favor knowing the difference between an adjective and an adverb, as well as the basic uses for those weird little dots, dashes and squiggles — you know, punctuation. It’s also good to know what a complete sentence is, even if you hardly ever use them.

    Music is whole different issue because technique is absolutely basic to being able to express yourself musically. I never really mastered technique either and like you, I wasn’t even able to perform decently for my piano teacher, much less an audience. I never grew out of that either, though I don’t suffer from stage fright in other ways. Public speaking is not a problem, but playing the piano? I froze. Solid. Couldn’t remember anything. Why I thought I could overcome it, I don’t know, but I never did. And, as it turned out, I wasn’t nearly good enough to be a pro anyhow.

    • I think technique is also basic to expressing ones self in writing, but it can’t take the place of a good idea or internal motivation. That’s what got me about the workshop I attempted 3 years ago. They were all about the “craft” of writing. They actually “crafted stories”. My reaction to that was to want to descend upon them like a screeching harpy and tear their eyes out. We all know that The Brothers Path has six main characters and it works. Even people who hate the book have had no problem with that. The people in my workshop told me it would not work, that it was antithetical to the “craft of fiction” and I “had to” settle on a single protagonist. The obligatory lesbian social worker in the group asked why they were all brothers and had no sisters. That was when I learned about the “craft” of writing. As you see, I’m still traumatized. 😀

  2. I’m struggling with inspiration now. I write every day, but it’s crap, and inspiration seems as far away as the first warm days of spring.

    • I know what you mean. I have been working on a novel and I know the story is a good one, but it’s not been fun to write because it is just so incredibly sad. Something kicked in a couple of days ago and I finished a draft. I’m reading it now. It’s a real sketchy draft, but that’s fine. One thing I find I do not like about being 65 is that it is — itself — a huge existential question (for me — maybe not everyone). I will be very happy when spring arrives. I’m sure some of this (for me) is the result of being really sick for 6 weeks and it being god-awful cold. It’s warmed up some, thank goodness. Still, the snow on the ground in the open places is more than a foot deep and it hasn’t snowed in two weeks. Normally I love winter, but not this year.

      • I know. I used to look forward to days when all I had to do was huddle at my desk and write. Now I just want to walk into the mountains and disappear. And I don’t care if I write another word.
        I sold two stories last month–and I don’t care. I was asked to change the ending on one story and told the editor that I liked it the way it is and if he didn’t, don’t publish it. I just don’t care if I get published in fishing rags right now.

      • I relate very very very well to “I don’t care” — it has a correlate in my case which is “Fuck you.” I don’t know why. Not bitterness, but there’s a feeling of irrelevancy as if the whole “game” is truly a game and has nothing to do with what really matters.

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