Writing: Craft Versus Art

On Saturday, I gave my presentation on fiction craftsmanship to a small collection of writers at the Palette and the Page, a book/gift shop in Elkton, Maryland. I had undergone hernia surgery only twelve days before. I wasn’t at the top of my form, but, thanks to a friend who accompanied me and carried everything for me, the presentation was a success.

While preparing for the presentation in my impaired state, the contrast between the craft and art of writing, especially fiction, seemed starker than ever. Everything I had to say during the presentation was about craft, a left-brained function. But the assembled writers wanted to talk about the art, a right-brained task.

As I point out in the presentation, a fiction writer needs both craft and art. The creative side of writing fiction—art—can’t be learned. It’s inborn. But the craft is the opposite: it’s not inherent and must be learned. Worse, learning the craft is a life-long endeavor. I’ve been working at it all my life but still learn new things as I write.

The creative side also matures. It took me some years to learn how to ease the grip of my rationality so as to allow my unconscious to seed its visions into my mind. I had to figure out how to put myself into a meditative state and let the characters, stories, and scenes seep into my consciousness so that I could write them down.

Then I had to learn how to let the creative side violate the principles of the craft for artistic reasons. I discovered that sometimes portraying a character’s dialect accurately is more important than following the rules of grammar. Occasionally writing a sentence without a predicate (verb) was more effective than insisting on proper structure. And once in a while, a single word can be a sentence.

And then there’s ultimate creative demand: create beauty. That means varying sentence and paragraph length and structure. It means finding words that not only evoke beautiful images but create beautiful sounds. It means creating rhythm and harmony and melody in the way the words come together and set each other off.

In short: craftsmanship in writing is a life-long pursuit. But so is creativity. The latter can’t be learned, but it can be refined and expanded and deepened.

The writer must never stop learning.

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