Writing: Art or Craft?

Both, I think. What do you think?

I am about to sail into the busy shipping lanes of the ‘Can Writing Be Taught’ waters. I broke rocks in an MFA program, and I taught undergraduate creative writing for a while, so clearly I believe that some things can be taught. But, with no disrespect for the gifted teachers in my own life, I must admit that 95% of what I know about writing I learned outside the classroom. 

As teachers, we have tended to fall into the old error of imagining that our students – particularly the most promising of them – are born knowing the things that go into good writing. We assign stories and poems, hold them up as models of the craft, and dismiss our students to find the elements of that craft. “This is how it’s done,” we say, “now go forth and do likewise.” As though one could show a student of architecture a photograph of the Parthenon and say “There. Now you go build one too.” 

Our best teachers are, of course, books. Our favorite books are our best teachers. But often, young writers absorb them without much thought as to how they are constructed.

Even if our young writers are paying attention to how their favorite authors accomplish the novel, they often feel that they must, at all costs, steer clear of any influence from others. This notion is widespread, and it’s bunkum. We are all influenced by what has come before us. Else there would be no language at all, never mind any new fiction.  It is perfectly natural and healthy for new writers to actively imitate the masters – that’s one of the best ways to study the construction of a novel, and to attend to the voice, and it won’t even grow hair on your palms.

Another pitfall for new writers, and still part of the anxiety of influence: they are often convinced that they must be completely original, and by this they mean that they must produce a plot, a structure, a theme, and a tone that the world has never seen before. Again, balderdash. One must merely consult Ecclesiastes, in which it was rightly written centuries ago: there is nothing new under the sun. It’s also fun to play the ‘there are only 3 plots’ game with classes. The number, of course, varies from proponent to proponent, but the number of plots in existence is, indeed, extremely small.

It is, of course, the individual take (or voice) on the universal theme that makes a good novel. I like what literary agent Donald Maass has to say about voice in ‘Writing the Breakout Novel’: “. . . voice is a natural attribute. You can no more control it than you can control the color of your eyes – nor would you want to.  To set your voice free, set your words free. . . Most important, set your heart free. It is from the unknowable subconscious that stories find their drive and from which they draw their meaning.”

In sum, I think that a brilliant teacher can help to shape a brilliant writer (please note well that I count myself as neither), but only if the art, or talent, is inborn, and only if the craft – the nuts and bolts – are clearly defined and often practiced.


~ by Leigh on June 22, 2009.

2 Responses to “Writing: Art or Craft?”

  1. Thanks for quoting my book in this most articulate and thoughtful post. I do agree that writing craft is insufficiently taught in our schools–not least of all in MFA programs where, among other things, students often seem bewildered by the idea of plot.

    What you say about the anxiety of influence also is interesting. A wish to break from the past is natural in the young writer, of course, so perhaps an answer here would be to guide students not to reject existing literature but instead to react to it. What is *your* take on suburban settings, or on the primacy of mother-daughter relationships?

    Do you see what I mean? Anyway, thanks again for an excellent post.

    -Donald Maass

    • Mr. Maass,

      I do see what you mean. The trend in English departments to teach ‘around’ the text rather than from it and within it has been troubling to me. That is not why I wanted to teach – I wanted to teach because of my love for the texts – for the beauty of the words.

      Thank you for commenting on my post, but most of all, thank you for ‘Writing the Breakout Novel.’ It’s a generous, insightful and invaluable gift that I certainly recommend to any aspiring writer who will listen to me.

      – Leigh McEwan

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