Notes on Craft

When you have taught enough fiction writing classes, you begin to take a dim view of craft. I mean craft as maxims, adages, top-down pedagogy. A manual may purport to teach me how to build a table, but such instructions have little to do with the nuances of manipulating the material. It is like this for students of writing, and like this in my own work. Understanding an element of craft in principle, even seeing it executed in practice, offers scant guidance to its artful application. Fiction emerges haphazardly on the page, in response to countless competing necessities. A programmatic approach tends to sacrifice organic complexity for the dictates of a workbook exercise.

A work of fiction is in many senses you, the writer. I mean style every bit as much as content. The feel for rhythm and cadence developed over decades, your private linguistic music and syntactical prejudices, even just where your attention tends to wander and land – all these biases amalgamate into your style, and this style usually shows through most powerfully when you remove your conscious attempts at stylization. ‘Kill your darlings’ has the evocative punch of tough love, but what you really want to kill are your impostures. The soft-shoe adlib you resort to when your unconscious swaying seems plain and artless. The strained jokiness you lapse into when you worry your company is boring. The desperate bids for control that meet the creeping suspicion that good writing cannot be forced.

This is hard. It is hard to devote yourself to something that makes you feel constantly like an amateur. Writing confers only to retract and stubbornly withhold its gifts. I think I am not unusual when I say that the predominant experience of writing is failure.

Of course you do get better. As with anything, practice calibrates judgments too subtle to name. The surgeon’s hand, the pilot’s feel for the movement of a plane, the actor’s instinct for how to let emotion break over the face. Does ‘craft’ help? Does attempting to formalize these judgments – identifying them not as organic skills, but as applicable strategies – work? I have my doubts. Like many others, I revert to such lessons in teaching because pedagogy must take a concrete form. But I do this knowing that the best advice my teachers gave me did nothing for my work until I discovered its truth for myself. This is quite apart from the interest in craft. It is immensely – intellectually – satisfying to articulate how fiction works, why pieces or passages succeed and fail. And learning to bring the unnamed to conscious awareness is not only the sole means of demystifying an elusive process; it is itself one of the core aims and pleasures of writing.

Still, I have little faith that my (or anyone’s) exhortations to students or aspiring writers can do more than fix their attention on a problem. Listen to your characters, let them surprise you and disrupt your plans. Do not think more is better: each word you add steals power from the other words; each word you subtract adds power to the words that remain. Treat the seemingly least important sentences with the greatest care. Abandon the sentence altogether as the atomic building block of fiction: great writing often arises from simple, unflashy rudiments, and it rarely emerges from a pileup of arty or ambitious prose. These and a dozen other maxims I routinely trot out when I teach fiction because they helped me grasp my failures. But I learned them on the job, so to speak, not because someone told them to me.

It may be worth noting that I regularly fail to heed my own advice. I flinch; I lack the courage of my convictions. Often it is because there are no rules in art, none that should never be broken. But perhaps there are more stable prescriptions from a realm just above craft – ‘meta-craft’ – which can be fairly described as immutable. These are at least the guidelights I try to follow (with greater and lesser success) in everything I write.

1. Turn toward what interests you. Fiction involves artifice. There is no real naturalistic correspondence between its form or conventions and life as it is lived. You have also chosen to tell this story out of countless possibilities. It may need to be plausible, but it need not be commonplace or representative. Follow your curiosity and excitement in the material: it is probably your best guide to the reader’s interest as well.

2. If you do not feel vulnerable, you are not being vulnerable. Fiction involves, at minimum, the vulnerability of putting your work, and judgment of the work, in readers’ hands. This means forgoing the urge to interpret, hedge, moralize – to tell readers what to think of the material and characters (and implicitly what to think of you). Any internal description of a character must in part draw on the fruits of your own introspection.A work of fiction advances these sorts of tacit suggestions: that you think your material is interesting; that you believe it reflects how the world works, how people think and act. The attempt to soften these implication will only weaken the work.

3. Look failure in the face. Be honest with yourself when something isn’t good enough. It rarely will be, but it literally never will be if you spend your time hiding from or trying to argue failure away. This is a taxing discipline, and it is doubly difficult because it is far easier to recognize failure than to remedy it. The best you can often do is to keep reworking, break things apart, write anew. Often this takes months, years. But your craft – your material competency – emerges from these painful efforts. Treasure maps are great fun, but for diamonds, there’s mostly time in the mines.


Image © Tobias Leeger

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