A Rant on Writers Who Dislike Craft, or Why I Still Like Vermeer

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I don’t know what to say to writers who aren’t interested in craft. I don’t know what to say when they start invoking the primacy of the unconscious, of seeing the bigger picture, or of writing the plain damn Truth.

Sure, we all use the subconscious in our writing; we must pay attention to the macro-level stuff; and ultimately, all of us aim to write something truthful about the human condition.

But we still need to talk about craft.

Perhaps it’s because “craft” sounds like a dirty word. It seems like it came from the same origin as “workshop,” of viewing ourselves as medieval artisans with hammers and nails and a set of blisters. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say, “I can’t wait to take more workshops.”

Mostly, it’s “I’m going to vomit if I have to take another workshop.” And the advice most popular in an MFA program: “Find the one or two people who are your readers.”

Can I make a bet that it’s because most readers don’t know and don’t want to talk about craft in the first place? Can I make a bet that many workshops fail because we don’t talk enough about craft?

And woe is the state of literature if only one or two people, in our modern cocoons of bibliophiles and book-savants, understand your work.

 

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When I talk about craft, I’m not talking about rules.

Show, don’t tell. Use all five senses. Stick with one POV.

In fact, when writers start talking like this, that’s when I suspect they probably haven’t bothered thinking much about craft. They just pick up platitudes and repeat them.

Start in the middle. Shorten sentences. Don’t have more than five characters.

Yes, all of us have been guilty of this. All of us have felt, somewhere deep down, that we’re propagating BS. So what to do about it?

Craft.

Many, many years ago, my very first writing workshops (called “The Craft of Fiction” and “The Craft of Poetry”) taught me how to freewrite. They taught me to write from what I know. They taught me how to critique other’s works by what I wanted to see more of, less of. They taught me that I should read a lot. They taught me to find my voice. They taught me that writing, ultimately, can’t be taught.

(But go pick up the Third Edition of Strunk & White from the campus bookstore.)

I quickly learned this: I learned that I didn’t want to go into creative writing, if that was all they could teach me.

 

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In the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, Penn and Teller have this wacky idea (not theirs originally but theirs to investigate) that one of the most revered artists of all time, Johannes Vermeer, relied heavily on a mechanical aid to paint his now-famous photorealistic portraits. The technique uses a small mirror to project an image onto a canvas, allowing for a kind of accuracy that wasn’t available before the advent of cameras.

In the film, an inventor without any art background simulated Vermeer’s work setup to reproduce The Music Lesson. The result: an astonishingly convincing replica.

There is still ongoing controversy whether Vermeer actually used these optical tools or—as many die-hards would like to believe—that he had a rare innate skill, a gifted eye for capturing verisimilitude.

The implication: if Vermeer had merely been using a technique, he must be a hack. The implication being that Art transcends techniques.

But Art is Technique. Technique is Art. Vermeer is no less an artistic genius either way. Form equals content. And you should’ve seen this coming: Craft is Literature; Literature is Craft.

 

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After my disillusionment with the creative writing department, I fumbled through college, forayed into journalism, linguistics, political science, pre-law, and ultimately landed on screenwriting. It was obvious I was looking for some kind of structure, a systematic approach to writing.

I graduated with three majors. I learned how to be concise with journalism. Learned how we learned languages in linguistics. I became passionate about fighting injustices in political science courses, which gave me things to write about. In screenwriting, I started out as the worse possible inventor of dialogue.

“Some people just have an ear for dialogue and some don’t.”

“Go sit at a bus stop and listen to people talk.”

I was too busy juggling my majors; besides, I was in L.A., who freaking takes the bus?

Good thing one teacher told me that dialogue could in fact be learned. He told me to read screenplays and watch movies, coached me on what works and what doesn’t and why.

Today, I am still amazed when people come up to me and say that my dialogue is great, or when I receive a personal note from a prominent literary journal saying that the editors were impressed with my dialogue.

(Yes, I can toot my own horn because I’ve suffered my share of insults.)

“You are a natural when it comes to dialogue.”

BS. It was all craft.

So what do I mean by craft?

I meant reading a story and studying it for how the author achieves a certain effect on readers; comparing that story to another story that might have used similar techniques; trying it out on your own story to see if it still works; hypothesizing about rules but only to get closer to the truth behind the rules.

Same with a novel. Or a poem. Or an essay.

But always: with an analytic approach, a desire to be thoroughly descriptive before being prescriptive; an acknowledgment that perhaps we won’t fully understand certain inner workings of an author, but we’ll resist the temptation to chuck it up to Divine inspiration and attempt the dissection anyway.

Craft is thinking about the why. Craft is reading deeply as much as it is widely. Craft is lifting the hem to expose the seams underneath. Craft is discovering the exceptions to the rules.

It’s dry, technical, boring work. It’s not easy. It tends to make one frustrated and curmudgeonly when one hears others disparaging craft.

Viva Craft. Viva Vermeer.

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