Thursday, March 27, 2008

Arts and Crafts

Is creating writing an art, or a craft? The very wording of the question leads the witness. Ooh, it's something rare and different; it's creative writing. It must be an art. And so the people who embrace this view tend to sit around, waiting for the Muse to fly in through their window and present them with a brilliant idea, fully formed, and dreaming of the miracles they will someday perform once that perfect idea finally manifests itself.

But mostly, they just sit. And wait.

Granted, from time to time some of them do produce turbulent gushes of sheer genius, shot through like dark storm clouds with dazzling bolts of pure brilliance. But then, they go back to waiting...

I had coffee a few days ago with an old friend, a writer I've known for years. Part of me loves a part of her. She's brilliant, and talented beyond measure, and knows more about the art of writing than I will ever begin to comprehend. When I first met her she was struggling to finish her first short stories. She did that, and began to get them published, and began to win awards, and then moved on to longer forms. Her first novel was a critical success and a strong-selling award-winner. Her second novel was even more artistically challenging and garnered even more critical acclaim, although it picked up no trophies and sales were down. Her third novel —

Her third novel died in utero, strangled by the umbilical cord of art. These days my friend sits around, nervously sipping her coffee, and agonizing over whether she will ever be able to write fiction again.

The older I get, the more I see, the more strongly I believe that creative writing is both an art and a craft, and of the two, the craft skills are by far the more important. Or to paraphrase the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers: "Craft will get you through times of no talent better than talent will get you through times of no craft."

If successful writing is primarily a craft, then, this quickly leads into a chain-fire of other revelations. A craft is something that can be learned. A craft is something that any reasonably intelligent and competent person can master, or at least take to journeyman level. A craft is something that can be studied, practiced, and improved with time. A craft is something that can be reduced to principles, which then can be turned around and given practical application.

Is creative writing really that kind of craft, no different from — and in fact measurably easier than — learning to lay and grout ceramic tile, or make a good clean bead with an arc welder? Yes, it most certainly is, as evidenced by the sizable number of "how to write" books that line my office bookshelves.

Yes, I buy books on writing. Yes, I read them. Yes, even "the glory that is Bethke" (Thanks, Sean!) works at improving his craft skills. No, not all of these books were useful, and in fact some of them contained far more harm than good. In my more cynical moods I sometimes think writers write "how to write" books in order to cripple the incipient competition. Which books did I find most useful?

That's easy. The books I find most useful tend to gravitate to the shelf right over my desk, and the two most heavily used books there are a battered, tattered, 1979 edition of Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, and The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

A good dictionary is essential. I use the dictionary often. A spell-checker is no substitute for a dictionary; it only tells you whether a word is spelled correctly. It doesn't tell you if that correctly spelled word is in fact the right word, the one you really meant to use to convey the idea you had in mind. For example, last Friday, in writing something for this blog, I used the word loathe

Or should it have been loath? Both pass spell-check, but they mean quite different things. So the right hand went up; Webster's came off the shelf; and faster than you can say "Google on broadband," I knew the difference, and thereby which one to use. E.g.,
I am loath to admit it, but I loathe lima beans.
At least the way my mother used to cook them: boiled almost to the point of becoming formless green goo and then drowned in melted margarine.

If the dictionary covers the correct spelling and usage of individual words, then The Elements of Style, a.k.a., "Strunk and White," is the single best source of information regarding how to put those words together that I've ever found. The rules are simple and concise. E.g.:
1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's.
The examples are unmistakably clear.
Charles's friend
Burns's poems
the witch's malice
The exceptional cases are made plain, often with recommended workarounds.
...such forms as Moses' Laws [...] are commonly replaced by
the laws of Moses

It is possible to overdose on Strunk and White. There is a sort of Cult of the Active Voice and a slavish insistence on putting statements in positive form that you find in people, usually non-writing middle-managers, who were exposed to Strunk and White at an impressionable age. But all in all, if you are even slightly insecure about your use of punctuation and grammar, I strongly recommend that you pick up a copy*, get to know it, keep it on your reference shelf, and go back to it from time to time — as I still do.

How about you? Are there any books on writing that you've found particularly helpful and would recommend?

* I recommend the 3rd Edition. The textbook publishing business and copyright laws being what they are, the publisher has felt compelled to "update" the book and issue a new edition every few years, but the 3rd Edition was the last one actually revised by E.B. White (a.k.a., "The guy who wrote Charlotte's Web") himself. Are you going to argue with the guy who wrote Charlotte's Web?