Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Mailer’s cask of brandy, or the pitfalls of craft

with 2 comments

Frequent readers of this blog will know that one of my ongoing obsessions is the idea of craft, even if I’ve never really bothered to define it before. Craft, if I had to pin it down, encompasses everything in a writer’s life aside from inspiration: it includes a vast range of skills, tricks, and habits, from the simple discipline of writing for hours each day to the nuts and bolts of grammar and style to larger issues of structure and organization. More than anything else, it’s the set of tools that turns those who want to write into those who do write, and those who write occasionally into those who write for a living. Craft is clearly a precious thing, acquired piecemeal over time, and it’s something that no writer can do without.

It can also become a trap. The trouble with craft, once a writer has it, is that it can be used as a substitute for things like intellectual honesty, emotion, and engagement with the real world—and the stronger the craft, the easier these evasions become. Good writing, as we all know, can disguise bad thinking, for author and audience alike. More insidiously, craft can be used to circumvent problems that otherwise could only be addressed by agonizing or uncertain introspection. Craft keeps a writer from having to depend on inspiration all the time, which is great—otherwise many novels would be started, but few finished—but it can also lead to an avoidance of risk in favor of facile solutions. Norman Mailer puts it beautifully in The Spooky Art:

Craft is merely a series of way stations. I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.

These are harsh words, but coming from Mailer, who had both plenty of craft and the intellectual courage to pursue his obsessions, it’s necessary to take them seriously. Mailer points to Robert Penn Warren, author of All the King’s Men, as an example of an author whose craft kept him from confronting the full implications of his material: “As it was, he knew enough about craft to use it as an escape hatch.” And I think we’ve all been guilty of this at one point or another. Once you’ve learned the basics of narrative, you can easily nudge a story into a dramatically satisfying shape that avoids the problems you’ve set for yourself. And yet the unmediated confrontation of these problems, without a safety net, is what results in great art.

So where does this leave us? Not with abandoning craft altogether, of course. Without craft, there would be no writers at all, and it’s hard to ask any artist to give up the tools that took so much time and effort to develop. And confronting the world’s problems without craft, as many well-meaning writers have done, is like going unarmed into battle. Still, it’s important to recognize its limitations. Craft is a snug little house that a writer builds for himself, but which he has to leave from time to time to get a sense of the snowy world outside. When he does, he’ll usually find that his craft isn’t sufficient, but he needs to push forward, knowing that otherwise he’ll only limit himself to an increasingly circumscribed range. And in the end, his house becomes larger—at least until his next excursion. Because the final secret of craft, it seems, is to know when to leave it behind.

Written by nevalalee

August 10, 2011 at 10:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. First, I’d like to say how much I wish I had better craft. Second, your essay was very meaningful for me as a reader, especially when I come across dialog that crackles but doesn’t make sense in developing the story. One of my favorite books, Rules of Play, fell down in story construction for me in a couple of key places, but Caitlin Macy is such a good writer I’d still call it a triumph. Susan Choi, whom I regard as one of the great living American writers, wrote American Woman as sheer craft–I’ve re-read her two other books (The Foreign Student and A Person of Interest) to shreds but that one is distant, albeit brilliantly written.


    August 11, 2011 at 10:41 am

  2. Glad you liked it! My own favorite example of a writer who privileges craft above all else, often to his disadvantage, would be Martin Amis. The opposite? More classic science fiction writers than I’d care to name.


    August 11, 2011 at 10:19 pm

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