Recently, I’ve been thinking about how grateful I am to be teaching creative writing. It’s different from teaching any other kind of writing. When I teach academic writing, for example, I teach students how to write in a certain way, how to make a persuasive argument in prose. I teach them how to introduce their argument, prove the argument in the paper, and then conclude by discussing the significance of what they have argued. When I teach creative writing, there’s no format, or not in the same way. The writer has to find the form of the story, and every story has a different form. Oh, there are formats I can teach, but they are useful to the writer only to the extent that they make the story more interesting, more compelling. The story, not the format, is of primary importance.
So I’ve been thinking about what I believe with respect to writing. Here are some of the things I believe:
I believe that there is a difference between craft and art. Craft is absolutely essential: to be an artist, you must know the craft of writing. You must understand how words mean, how sentences are put together, how to construct stories. When I teach writing, I teach craft. Art goes beyond craft, and has to do with what a writer, as an individual, brings to writing. Art is in the way Virginia Woolf explores consciousness. In the way George Orwell writes about politics. Both Woolf and Orwell make stylistic choices, write the way they write, because of what they’re focusing on, because of their convictions about reality. I can’t teach a student to write like Virginia Woolf. I can only teach a student why she wrote as she did.
What we think of as crafts can achieve the level of art, and what we think of as arts can be practiced as crafts. A quilt can become a work of art. And writing can be practiced purely as craft. I’ve read romances that are certainly good, as craft. And there’s nothing wrong with good craft. Not all writing has to aspire to art. But I teach my students to aspire, because I do believe that a work of art is a higher, more complex, more difficult thing to create. I can’t teach a student how to be an artist. I can teach good craft, and point the way toward great art. I can indicate what it looks like. (I think J.R.R. Tolkien was practicing a great art. His later imitators are examples of craft.)
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Stephen King subtitled his book on writing “A Memoir of the Craft” and E.M. Forster called his book The Art of the Novel. (These are two of my favorite books on writing.) King is primarily concerned with craft, as I think he should be. He was trying to teach, and craft is what can be taught. A writer is often better off simply focusing on the craft and letting the art take care of itself, at least for most of the writing process. Forster was concerned with how the novel, as a work of art, actually works.
I believe there is absolutely such a thing as talent, and that if we deny the existence of talent, we are kidding ourselves. I teach over a hundred students each year, and they come into my classes with different levels of ability. Some have a talent for writing, which means they can hear how words and sentences fit together, as a musician hears music. Writing is not necessarily any easier for them, but they approach it differently. However, a talent for writing should really be thought of as talents: in creative writing workshops, where all of my students are there because of their writing talent, I teach students who are good at poetic prose style, students who are good at plotting or creating compelling characters. Different students have different talents. And while talents are to a certain extent natural abilities, like the musician’s ear, all talents need to be developed. Talent is only the beginning, and talent can sometimes lead students astray. If they believe or rely too much on their natural abilities, they are liable to neglect the craft.
My role as a creative writing teacher is to take an individual with inclination, who has already demonstrated a basic level of talent, and work on the craft of writing. Which itself is a privilege. And then to point the way to art and say, if you wish, that’s where it is, in that general direction . . .
Woman Writing a Letter by Gerard Terborch
I thoroughly enjoyed your perspective on this and I take so much from your thoughts! One of my top favorite books on writing is Stephen King’s On Writing as well. Happy I clicked on your post and read this. Holly
I agree with you absolutely. Unfortunately, modern education tells young people that personal expression is more important than proper crafting. By the time they get to me, any talent they have is thoroughly tangled in bad habits. The worst part though is that they have poor instincts for art because they have been led to believe they are already creating it, which is simply not true.
On the other hand, as you intimate, not everyone believes talent exists or is important. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to mean they honour craft all the more – at least I say so judging from the sorts of popular books which get published. I think anyone who has taught students – or simply who has read widely – knows talent exists because it shines forth in an obvious way. I dislike it when people say, “anyone can be a writer” – because it may be literally true but the real truth is that not anyone can be a *good* writer, either at the craft or art level.
Going now to share this post …
Especially for remote writers such as myself who must depend on the internet for writing craft education.
Thank you very much
I shared this post on my Facebook author’s page because I think it brings an important perspective to both readers and writers. I taught college-level journalism courses, and had similar feelings about the approach to feature writing. There’s an interesting mix of craft, art, talent, and intention behind every written piece. Craft we can teach to those willing to focus on the lessons.
A good post.
I was so happy to see this topic. I envy your students. Always I keep Dylan Thomas’s line, “Sullen art and craft…” in mind. For me it is backwards, “Sullen craft,” which I have learned mostly from my wonderful writer friend and mentor who has the craft at her fingertips. She helped me crack the shell of craft, so I can pull things apart and put them together again, piece by piece. Structure. Who, what, when, where why. It is, in the end, fun. And it is true that when the student is ready, the teacher comes.
Thanks for such a clear and insightful post Theodora.
A lot of what you say about the Art and Craft of writing is also true about the visual arts where I do my thing, and I have been rehearsing the arguments about art and craft and illustration in a fairly incoherent way over many years. I will certainly be cribbing from you in future bar room discussions.