Writing is often described as a craft, and usually in counterposition to art. In the Romantic Era, art was seen as the precinct of special, sensitive people, who were inspired by a Muse. Craft, on the other hand, involved practice, tradition, and the perfection of skills. Today, professional writers are almost a single mind—writing is a craft, not an art.
There are a few good reasons to ally with craft. Writing is hard work, and revision thankless. Yet, plenty of non-writers just imagine writers “being creative” and generating stories. Then the money flows on in. Writing skills can be learned, though mostly just by reading widely, and so it has a lot in common with other crafts. Practice makes…improvement. (Not perfect.) Then there’s the publishing aspect. Writers take assignments, write to certain themes or lengths, and many pride themselves on their ability to write anything.
However, writers often protest too much. I used to collect the sillier comments, but it got boring after the first few thousand. Here are a few of my favorites:
Writing in Starbucks is not writing. It is “trying to hook up with attractive members of the opposite (or same) sex by appearing to be a sensitive, tortured Artist.”
Oh, yes, I can hear the snickering from the fellows in the back row dressed in black turtlenecks, obscured by their haze of cigarette smoke, and trading witty barbs that are just regurgitations of something Nietzsche said much better.
The garret is a myth. Ignore it.
“Craft” today is not a counter to the Romantic vision of an artistic elite chosen by the Divine, it is a quasi-proletarian flinch often designed to protect one’s work from being compared to art, thus protecting it (and one’s ego) from its near-inevitable failure to stack up to the idea of art as a superlative. The craft metaphor also serves the production-driven processes of conglomerate publishing: books are published to fill slots and develop and extend categories on a mass scale, which militates against the individual nature of a piece of art. And yet, writers, as small businesspeople, also hope to avoid complete proletarianization (even when they write work-for-hire material to specifics as stringent as anything one might find in a fast food joint) and thus don’t dare embrace the industrial metaphor their masters long ago did. So they declare themselves to be craftspeople, a head higher than the cloth hats that used to read their stuff before everyone got television sets.
Writing is a balance between art and craft, but there is enough suspicion of art—it suggests snobbery, laziness, and even homosexuality in some of the more idiotically conservative quarters—that the stick must be bent in the other direction. Craft is a matter of artisanship, and artisanship is a matter of mastering a relatively small tool kit in order to solve a number of practical problems. These practical problems also allow for aesthetic flourishes to be added. You can thus have a basket with an interesting weave, for example, but you can’t have the weave by itself, without the basket.
Writing, by way of contrast, is a matter of deploying a relatively small number of tools from a toolkit of infinite size in order to solve problems that don’t exist until they are solved through the use of the tool. That’s art. This is what people are trying to say when they trot out that all canard about learning all the rules, and then forgetting them. They mean, “Some tools are far more commonly used than others. It’s generally helpful to start using some set of tools first, then you can search The Infinite Toolbox for others, once you’ve figured out what a handle is and what part of a widget to plug into the wookedtyclicket.”
There are an infinite number of potential sentences (and paragraphs, and chapters) and thus a toolbox of infinite size. Even very simple communicative tasks can be accomplished in an infinite number of ways. When I visited London in 2000, I came across a broken escalator somewhere, and it was cordoned off. On the cordon there was a sign that read something like “Please Do Not Attempt To Use This Escalator Whilst Repairs Are Underway.” When I got home to Jersey City, one of the escalators eading up out of the Journal Square PATH station was also broken, and also had a sign. This one read something like “ELIVATOR NOT ORDER NO!!” (sic) Yes, the escalator was labeled an “elivator.”
Both communications—both tools—worked just fine. At least I didn’t see any wayward legs twisted into the teeth of the receding steps in either country. Both were pretty memorable too. As matters of art, they both have a lot to say about their creators as well.
Why think of writing as an art? For better or for worse, there is a connotation of seriousness about “art” that “craft” doesn’t have. Indeed, that’s why many writers claim to be craftspeople rather than artists—it’s a punt and a dodge. Writing is like any other result of practice; the more seriously you take it, the better you’ll be at it. The deeper you consider its structures and possibilities, the better you’ll be at it. Sticking with the common tools of “the craft” and viewing art with suspicion is self-limiting. Patricia Highsmith had a wonderful bit of advice for writers: “Suspense writers, present and future: Remember you are in good company. Dostoyevsky, Wilkie Collins, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe…there are hacks in every kind of literary field…Aim at being a genius.”
Perhaps the term “genius” is even more fraught than “art”, so I’ll stick with the latter. Fight against the tyranny of craft. Aim to be an artist. Take each blank page as a formal challenge, not just a narrative or commercial challenge. Will many writers fail at being artists? Yes, most people fail at most things on most attempts. But a failed artist can end up being a fairly competent craftsperson, just from the attempt, and and the extended conceptions of the work. If one aims to be a craftsperson and fails at that, as most people do, then what sort of writer does one turn out to be?