Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Apprentices for Life: Writers and Craft

Janine Harrison
The romanticized, media-fueled image of the novelist entails a starving writer who, after facing writers block, is suddenly inspired to sit down at his typewriter (it is an old image, you see) and, working day and night, feverishly pounds out a novel, which is sent off in its entirety in a brown envelope to a single New York agent, who almost immediately sells it to one of the most reputed publishers in the city, and it becomes an instant best seller, earning top dollar.  (Simultaneously, said novelist gets his personal life together AND gets the girl, followed by, you guessed it, “happily ever after”). 
As a creative writing professor, I still have a couple of students each year who enter my intro course, intending to do just this.  Some have even prematurely self-published.  What is wrong is not lack of talent.  Often what separates the novice from the expert writer is what he or she does during the craft stage of writing. 
Although I have heard of a famous writer or two who was able to write publication-worthy material in a single draft, for most of us, writing involves damned hard work.  Ernest Hemingway once stated, “There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”  Writing, when done properly, should look easy, and to non-writers it does.  Some writers pre-write and then write.  Others confront the blank page with an idea at the ready and begin to draft.  Either way, the first or discovery draft is an adventure.  It is the time and place for writers to turn off their inner-critic, let words come alive on the page, and follow them.  Let the words take the scenic route, exploring rain forests and deserts, jungles and ocean depths, as they sojourn.  Let them make connections that are not consciously understood.  Let them exist unbroken. 
But after the writer has become hollow from the writing experience, has let the draft get cold, has returned to it with attitudes vacillating between ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever written—it’s bloody brilliant!’ to ‘Perhaps this is one for the circular file?’, it is only then that the real work begins.
What, then, is the real work—the work of craft?  Craft is the re-envisioning, the deepening, the addressing of global and local concerns, that characterizes drafts two through ???, until you, the writer, cannot make the piece any better or cannot stand to look at it another minute.  (Hopefully, those two events coincide.  If not, please walk away and return when you have regained some semblance of objectivity about the piece at hand and revise it until it is the best that you can do.) 
When I was a grad student, I once wrote a second or third ending for a story, which was again rejected by my creative writing professor, and in frustration, I asked, rather loudly, “How many endings do you expect me to write?”  The professor looked up from the paper he’d begun reading and replied simply, “Herman Melville rewrote the ending of Moby Dick 106 times.”  Perhaps he said 103?  Either way, that shut me up.  Craft is what makes bad writing better.  Decent writing good.  Good writing excellent.  Excellent writing exceptional.  And exceptional writing publishable.  And it takes time and effort to learn how to take writing from one stage to the next.  It is, in fact, a never-ending process. 

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