Copyright 2016 by Gabriel Connor Salter (feel free to share, but don’t plagiarize. I’m a writer, you have no idea what I can do to your reputation).
“Inked ravens of despair claw holes in the [face] of the world’s mind.”
I watched the screen for a second, and then started laughing. If you’re totally confused by now, I was watching a sketch from a British comedy show called A Bit of Fry and Laurie. That particular sketch features an English teacher talking to one of his pupils, who has just won a prize for his poem – which, as I said, is titled “Inked Ravens of Despair Claw Holes in the [Face] of the World’s Mind.” The rest of the sketch is the baffled English teacher trying to understand the poem, which is really just a 15-year-old talking about bad hygiene, lust, depression, and pessimism with stark, graphic imagery. And some David Bowie references.
On one level this sketch is just silly, slightly crass British comedy, but on another it’s very thought-provoking. It talks about a certain attitude toward art – that it doesn’t have to be well-crafted or deep even make sense to the audience. You just throw everything out there, and that is art.
The problem of course, is that it doesn’t quite work like that in the world of professional artists. The reality is there is a point where art (be it writing or one of the other arts) is just you doing whatever you think will work, but to reach that point you have to learn the technique of your chosen art and how to connect with people in it.
Randy and Peter Economy talked about this in their book Writing Fiction for Dummies – they explained by saying writing is an art, but it is also a craft. Good writing is a fusion of those two things.
I won’t dare define what art exactly is, but it is definitely impulsive. We say there are rules to artwork but when you look hard enough there is always some great artist who broke the rules. That’s why artists are assumed to be unconventional and why Ray Bradbury argued writing is something you can’t learn in college. We say that a certain thing is “more an art than a science” because we know science has set formulas and logical conclusions. Art on the other hand, really boils down the simple question, “What does this piece of art say to you?”
A craft on the other hand, is something you can perfect. We can’t teach people how to be artistic – Stephen King argued in On Writing that you either have artistic talent or you don’t – but we can teach people a set of skills so they can channel their artistic ability. Skills like how to edit a rough draft, how to develop believable characters, how to sell a story to multiple publications, or write an expected number of pages on schedule. Craft has formulas, and they center around the question, “How do I make a piece of writing that will sell or at least pass grammar tests?”
It takes some of the magical appeal out of writing when you discuss craft, but the reality is you can’t ignore craft if you want to be a successful writer. You may be able to write without being an artist, but you cannot be an artistically good writer if you don’t know the craft of writing.
One good example is Raymond Chandler’s crime novel The Big Sleep, published in 1939. Whether you like crime noir or not, this book is a classic – it was made into a classic film in 1946, has been adapted for radio and stage several times , and appears on multiple lists of best novels of the 20th century – including TIME magazine’s list of 100 best novels since 1923.
So how did Chandler write this classic? Well, he “cannibalized” several short stories he had already sold to pulp magazines. He combined them, changed some elements so he had a consistent story, then he expanded that story with new characters and stronger descriptions. In other words he made a smart marketing move – he knew the story would work, he had sold it once before as a pulp story, but now he put real effort into making it into a full-fledged novel. Even years after people discovered this was how Chandler wrote novels, The Big Sleep continues to be hailed as real literature.
There is a place for artistry and doing whatever you want in a piece of writing, but it’s just one puzzle piece on the map of good writing. The full map is much for more complicated, dangerous, and exciting.
Cover Image Source:
Economy, Peter and Ingermanson, Randy. “Writing Fiction for Dummies.” Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2010. Print.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.
Weller, Sam. “Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 23.” The Paris Review, 2010.
Widdicombe, Toby. A Reader’s Guide to Raymond Chandler. Pg. 36-37. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001. Web.