The dictionary defines ‘craft’ by making references to skill, dexterity, cunning, and even deceit. Of course, it is normally associated with a deft manual skill to produce a thing of value or beauty. Trying to decide exactly what is the good and acceptable product of a skilled craftsman we then descend rapidly into the shadowy realms of subjectivity. One man’s meat is another man’s poison and all that.
I have just been reading George Orwell’s little manifesto entitled ‘Why I Write,’ which he published in 1946, the year I was born. Orwell was undoubtedly a craftsman, knew his craft well, and was literate and articulate enough to write succinctly about it. In the early part of the book, he lists what he believes to be the four main reasons, or motives, why a person would want to seriously write.
The first motive is probably the strongest driver, if we are honest enough to admit to it. It is the desire to be seen to be clever, to be talked about, to be on the New York Times Best Seller List and even to be remembered after our death, though we won’t be around to bask in the glory.
Becoming a writer is an odd desire in many ways. What I mean is, if you want to be a painter, a carpenter, an engineer, a dentist or a doctor, it is assumed you will have to be trained and fully learn your craft before you can produce or do anything really good.
To become a writer is somehow different from all the other professions, in that you can go to university to study English literature and attend creative writing courses run by eminent successful writers. In the UK, I imagine hundreds do just this, and I guess in the USA it probably numbers in the thousands. But somehow it doesn’t quite work out in the same way as for the people who study diligently to become craftsmen in other disciplines. In my doctor’s office, I see on the wall his credentials proudly displayed–the Medical Certificate, which says he can practice as a GP. I look at that and trust him implicitly.
If writers had consulting rooms, like doctors, and I saw on the wall the University degrees in literature, philosophy, history and the like, would I assume that the holder of these prestigious awards was a great writer? We all know the answer to this question. It’s a simple, unvarnished ‘no’.
The craft of writing can be taught. The craft of learning to become a writer can be learnt, but it doesn’t guarantee that the student will be a great or even a good writer. But why doesn’t it?
Returning to George Orwell and his little essay ‘Why I write,’ he says this about considering what makes a good writer: “…it has to do with the writer’s early development; his subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in, by his acquired emotional attitudes, his temperament, his maturity and not forgetting the all-important motives, listed above.”
From the point of view given in the paragraphs above it is clear that learning the craft of writing is not enough. We can partition this activity as the objective study of writing. All the rest is established in the subjective department of the writer. This latter realm cannot be taught. It is indeterminate, unique, special, incalculable, complex, mystical, beautiful, tangible yet ephemeral, and at some precious moment even eternal.
It is the human psyche which holds the secret. What pours out onto the ‘tabular rasa’ is a miracle at times. Where does it come from? It comes from the life within. It can be good, bad and ugly, but when it is truly creative and inspired, it shows. And more importantly readers know it too. It becomes a shared experience par excellence. It binds us together in unity. It applauds the human race. It raises us out of the mire and places us firmly on the mountain top. Hallelujah!
PS – For some other writers’ views see :
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
- Ernest Hemingway on Writing, by Larry W. Phillips
- On Writing: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about the Craft, by David Jauss