Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The real importance of craft

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Richard Wilbur

If there’s a consistent theme on this blog, it’s the importance of detachment. This means setting aside any concerns about success, fame, or money while writing, as Richard Wilbur advises, and also maintaining a healthy objectivity toward the work itself. Writing is about making hard choices—in particular, it’s about cutting—and an author needs to be willing to stand back from the story and honestly evaluate what is and isn’t working. In the past, I’ve even said that this kind of objectivity ought to extend to the material itself: the more fascinating or emotionally resonant the author finds the subject, the harder it can be to see it with clear eyes. In science fiction, for instance, I’ve learned to warn writers that the more excited you are about your initial idea, the more cautiously you should proceed. And while I won’t go as far as to say that authors should avoid subjects that they find personally compelling or which have autobiographical meaning, I’d argue that it’s best to take an interest in idea more for its potential as the engine of a story than for its inherent significance.

Of course, there’s a danger here as well. There always comes a point halfway through any long project, especially a novel, in which the author can’t remember why the central idea seemed worth writing about in the first place. This applies as much to ideas of enormous personal importance as to anything else, and at first glance, you might also expect it to affect ideas that were chosen in a more objective frame of mind. And you wouldn’t be wrong. When you take into account all the stages of conception, research, writing, and revision, a novel can easily take up a year or more of a writer’s life, and in any extended endeavor, that early excitement tends to fade. I spend a fair amount of time interacting with aspiring authors online, and I’ll often see writers whose greatest obstacle isn’t craft or habit but boredom: after a few chapters, they lose interest in what they’re doing and stop. A month later, it happens again. And in a field where finishing a rough draft and taking it through all the following steps are indispensable requirements for growing as an artist, that kind of burnout can be deadly.

Iris Murdoch

The solution to this problem, which took me a long time to figure out myself, is that passion and engagement are essential to writing, but they’re best focused on craft. When I’m reading through the draft of a novel for the fiftieth time, which is not an exaggeration, I’m no longer surprised by the challenges the characters face, but I’m still caught up in the technical problems that the novel presents. An author’s engagement with the work serves as a kind of an invisible parallel plot to the main narrative, and unlike the story itself, its suspense only increases with time. And just as obstacles within the plot serve to raise the stakes for the protagonist, the rules of craft provide an appealingly treacherous road for a writer to navigate, which keeps things interesting long after that first rush of discovery has dissipated. Writing a novel is a lot like a marriage, and not just because, as Iris Murdoch says, you should never commit yourself until you’re amazed at your luck. A romance can begin with a moment of infatuation, but by itself, it isn’t enough: you need to fall in love with a routine of ordinary habits and interactions, some exciting, others mundane, and all based on a set of obligations that liberate as much as they confine.

Which brings me to an important point about craft. We tend to see the rules of good writing as a set of restrictions or best practices designed to help writers avoid inadvertent mistakes: “Show, don’t tell,” “Omit needless words,” “Start each story as late as possible.” At first, that’s precisely what they are. Over time, though, they start to become something more, a kind of matrix in which creativity can find its fullest expression as it cracks small, absorbing problems. Like learning to play an instrument or mastering a sport—both of which, for the sake of full disclosure, are things I know nothing about—internalizing the rules of craft is really a way of giving meaning to each step in pursuit of a larger goal. Ten thousand hours of practice or a million words can seem like a lot, but most of the time, you aren’t thinking in those terms, but about how to resolve the issue right in front of you. Without the rules of craft, the daily give and take of figuring out a story can be undeniably tedious; with them, it’s endlessly diverting. And that’s why the rules matter. They aren’t a set of assembly instructions, but a handbook for playing the greatest game in the world.

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2013 at 9:01 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

2 Responses

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  1. What are you gleaning from you 50th read-through of your own work? I find that after more than five or six times reading through my own writing, I’m not really seeing what’s there but “reading” what my brain is filling in.

    le cul en rows

    April 24, 2013 at 10:03 am

  2. That’s a great question. Fifty times is actually more of an outlier, although I think I’m getting close to it with my current project. At that point, I’m really thinking more in terms of structure and pacing, and the individual lines do tend to blur together.


    April 24, 2013 at 10:22 am

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