Is craftsmanship an anachronism?


Silk’s Post #86 — Anyone who knows me will immediately know my answer to this question as it relates to writing. (For the rest of you, my answer is “no”.) For me, arts & crafts are an inseparable couplet, like love & marriage, salt & pepper, thunder & lightning, scotch & soda, birth & death. But the question perhaps should be: what is craftsmanship in writing? I had a spirited debate with myself about this the other day as a part of my frequent self-nag about getting more words on paper, faster.

Back at the beginning of our 5writers5novels5months quest, I wrote a hopeful post titled Arithmetic for Writers, which championed the 1000-words-a-day mantra. In fact, if you surveyed all of the 457 posts since we started this blog, a good percentage of them deal in some way with productivity … Getting started. Overcoming writer’s block. Writing while travelling. Writing while moving. Writing through all manner of disruptions to the Writing Life. Why the writer didn’t get any writing done. How to motivate yourself to write. How to avoid the brake of your internal editor and just get that messy, hellish first draft down.

pattersonAnd then there are the examples of prolific bestselling authors to contemplate (which are either inspiring or disheartening, depending on how you look at it). This list surely begins with James Patterson. The man has written 119 books. He wrote 14 books in 2013 alone – more than a book a month, for godsake. James Patterson isn’t just a writer, he’s an industry. And how does he do it? In his own words:

“I’m not a writer’s writer. I’m not a craftsman. I could be, and that would be a one-book-a-year operation.”

But what exactly does he mean by that? You don’t sell 119 books without some level of craftsmanship coming into play. So I started searching for other writers’ words on craftsmanship. The comparative paucity of references, differences in perspectives, and haziness of definitions were … well, thought-provoking. There is no shortage of soaring quotes about inspiration, talent, creativity and other qualities associated with great writing. But craftsmanship? It seems to be the poor cousin, the stuff of how-to literature and workshops for “aspiring” writers, a.k.a. the unpublished.

Even in that context, the emphasis tends to be on fairly basic rules and techniques to escape the slush pile. Helpful and necessary, for sure. Critical when you’re just starting out. But this kind of writing advice seems analogous to how to build a house that actually has four walls, a floor, a roof, and some form of ingress and egress. Creating a literary structure that readers will want to inhabit, explore, marvel at and never leave – well, that’s another level of craftsmanship.

So, is writing an art, or a craft? Or both? Happily, my quest did yield some true gold.

virginia-woolfThe literary luminary Virginia Woolf gave a talk in 1937 as part of the BBC radio broadcast series “Words Fail Me” (it is thought to be the only surviving recording of her voice and is therefore a celebrated artifact). She was assigned the topic of “Craftsmanship.” Aha! Just what I was looking for!

However, she promptly dismissed “Craftsmanship” in her first sentence as an impossible subject.

“The title of this series is ‘Words Fail Me,’ and this particular talk is called ‘Craftsmanship.’ We must suppose, therefore, that the talker is meant to discuss the craft of words – the craftsmanship of the writer. But there is something incongruous, unfitting, about the term ‘craftsmanship’ when applied to words. The English dictionary, to which we always turn in moments of dilemma, confirms us in our doubts. It says that the word ‘craft’ has two meanings; it means in the first place making useful objects out of solid matter – for example, a pot, a chair, a table. In the second place, the word ‘craft’ means cajolery, cunning, deceit. Now we know little that is certain about words, but this we do know: words never make anything that is useful; and words are the only things that tell the truth and nothing but the truth. Therefore, to talk of craft in connection with words is to bring together two incongruous ideas, which if they mate can only give birth to some monster fit for a glass case in a museum. Instantly, therefore, the title of the talk must be changed.”

And that was just for openers.

Being the sublime (and I dare say crafty) intelligence that she was, Woolf then uprooted the conversation and took it on an odyssey that sought the nature of words and truth. “Let us then simplify and assert that since the only test of truth is length of life,” she said, “and since words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest. Buildings fall; even the earth perishes. What was yesterday a cornfield is today a bungalow. But words, if properly used, seem able to live forever.”

But Woolf perceived a problem. “Think what it would mean if you could teach, if you could learn, the art of writing. Why, every book, every newspaper would tell the truth, would create beauty. But there is, it would appear, some obstacle in the way, some hindrance to the teaching of words.”

Her diagnosis of this problem was brilliant, and – in an irony that could only have been entirely deliberate – a beautiful description of craftsmanship.

“Where then are we to lay the blame? … It is the words that are to blame. They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words to do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind.”

She bemoans the fact that right there in the dictionary lie half a million English words that are capable of becoming another Antony and Cleopatra or David Copperfield, and yet crafting them to the writer’s own purpose is trickier than it seems.

“It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love, and mating together. It is true that they are much less bound by ceremony and convention than we are. Royal words mate with commoners. English words marry French words, German words, Indian words … Thus to lay down any laws for such irreclaimable vagabonds is worse than useless. A few trifling rules of grammar and spelling are all the constraint we can put on them.

All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live – the mind – all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and feel before they use them … They hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is in their nature to change. Perhaps that is their most striking peculiarity – their need of change. It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided, and they convey it by being themselves many-sided, flashing this way, then that … And when words are pinned down they fold their wings and die.”

shawNobelist George Bernard Shaw put the writer’s challenge of using words to carry that which is in his own mind into the mind of the reader more succinctly: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” 

So what is the alchemy needed to tame these flighty, slippery, shape-shifting words and put them to work, bend them to the writer’s purpose of conveying the intended meaning to the reader? How do the greats use mere words to make readers’ hearts beat faster, sweat dampen their brows, tears come to their eyes, insights light up their minds, laughter and joy erupt from the depths of their hearts?

Johannes Brahms’ insights on music apply equally to writing: “Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.”

Literary lion William Golding said: “I’m against the picture of the artist as a starry-eyed visionary not really in control or knowing what he does. I’d almost prefer the word ‘craftsman’. He’s like one of those old-fashioned ship builders who conceived the build of the boat in their mind and after that touched every single piece that went into the boat.”

Bestseller Jeffery Deaver assures us: “If you have a craftsman’s command of the language and basic writing techniques you’ll be able to write – as long as you know what you want to say.”

The legendary Emile Zola said: “There are two men inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.”

Last word to Thomas Steinbeck (son of John Steinbeck): “My father thought of himself as a tradesman. A craftsman.”

On that down-to-earth and hopeful note, I rest my case.



Note to blog followers: apologies for missing my post last week. I have tried to make up for it with a big, juicy one this week. Fact is, I’ve tried to be a fast writer. To not be so bound by slow craftsmanship. To dash out first drafts of novel and blog with wild abandon, and worry about the niceties later. But this is just not the way I’m made, or the way I make things. Hence, my self-debate about craftsmanship. So I’m resigned to never becoming a rich author like James Patterson. Just to be an author, a published one, is more than enough.

1 thought on “Is craftsmanship an anachronism?

  1. Lots of food for thought in this post, Silk. Yes, the craft can be learned, but if that’s all the author has, the book will not have that extra ingredient that it takes to make it unforgettable. I think Patterson is missing that ingredient, at least in his later books (those co-written or using a ghost-writer). He has become a writing factory. (I wrote about this at length last September in my post ‘Dare to say it out loud’). In contrast, John Steinbeck, even though he modestly called himself ‘a tradesman a craftsman’ was so much more. His writing has heart and love and pain and every emotion in between that is difficult if not impossible to learn as a craft. Or is it?

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