Thursday, May 31, 2012

When You Don't Know Craft...

How important are craft skills when it comes to creative writing? I'm Emily of the 12Writing crew and in this post I'm discussing the value of craft and how much emphasis writers place upon it. Come and join in this conversation by sharing your stories about craft and content and your experiences with what has mattered more to you as a writer.

I’ve been lectured a lot of opinions about the importance of craft, some of which you’ve probably heard before. They often sound something like:

                “You need it. It’s what makes a solid writer.”
                “It’s not that important; what matters is the story!”
                “Craft will make or break you.”

After fifteen years of writing, I’m not sure that the question How important is craft? is what needs to be asked. I grew up learning how to write mostly by playing around and experimenting tons on my own time. It wasn’t until I went for my bachelor’s degree that I thought I’d be receiving “real training” to write.

And I did get training. I got used to the trials of inexperienced workshops and groupthink and wonderfully brave first drafts. I began learning how to let others talk about my work without getting defensive and how to phrase my own comments to provide hope as well as advice (my goal was always to have the writer wanting to get back at their draft for round two).
But I didn’t learn craft, at least, not to the point where I could analyze a sentence and copy the structure of it for myself. I learned some basic craft terminology, but my classes didn’t dwell on the subject. As a result, I felt like I was floundering a bit when I came to grad school and was asked not only, “What do you write?”, but “What style of that do you write in?” I knew enough to tell you that I used irregular white space and what the voice of my individual speakers was supposed to be like, but I didn’t know what category I fit into and I think that’s a good place for a writer to rest. At least in the early years.

Getting that craft terminology was important in my growth as a writer; it just wasn’t the most important. I will openly say that I believe some craft vocabulary needs to be taught to young writers, and that will be an element of what I teach in my own classes. Writers need to be able to label the components of a work so they can have productively engaging discussions with others about those writings. Writers should know POV, rhythm, setting, plot, story, musicality, protagonist, antagonist, voice, stanza, line, speaker/narrator. Even knowing these twelve terms will greatly aid a writer in critically revising and structuring their work.

The advantage of not dwelling on the craft is that it allows for due attention on content. What I wrote was what I wanted to say, not a fill-in-the-blank formula that would come out sounding peachy keen every time. I have some really confusing pieces of work in my closet because I wasn’t narrowing my sights on the amount of foreshadowing or repetition I was using, but those pieces have also been some of my most exciting first drafts.

So yes, learn craft, but don’t make it the most important priority. Everyone can learn craft at any time because it’s terminology shared by the larger writing community. Learning content is a whole other matter. The writer needs to figure out what subject matters enough to them that they earnestly care about their writing, but also how to relate to that content so critique doesn’t feel like a brass knuckled punch in the gut.

You can find lots of advice on how to say something, but finding what to say takes personal questioning and exploration. Why else do so many cheap writing prompts give you something to say and let you run away with the form of it?

So how do you feel about what you know of craft? My story is only one, and I know the views on the value of craft are numerous. How confident do you feel in critically commenting on a piece of writing? How do you relate to the writing you do? I’d love to have a discussion grow here and so, in keeping with the theme of this message, what matters enough for you to say it, and say it well?

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