The Craft of Writing

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.

  1. Egoism
  2. Aesthetic
  3. Historical
  4. Political

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 :

  1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
  2. Ernest Hemingway on Writing, by Larry W. Phillips
  3. On Writing: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about the Craft, by David Jauss

“This I Believe”: Creating a Writer’s Manifesto

Making another addition to the Manifesto!

This I Believe was a series of wildly successful radio broadcasts hosted by Edward Murrow from 1951 to 1955. Murrow introduced the series this way:

“’This I Believe. By that name, we bring you a new series of radio broadcasts presenting the personal philosophies of thoughtful men and women in all
walks of life. In this brief time each night, a banker or a butcher, a painter or a social worker, people of all kinds who need have nothing more in common
than integrity—a real honesty—will talk out loud about the rules they live by, the things they have found to be the basic values in their lives.”

What are the rules we live by as writers? What are the “basic values” in our art? Few of us have taken the time in the midst of our writing lives to identify what we believe about writing, about our work as writers, about its place in the world. I had been writing for decades before I began to form my own credo. Almost immediately, I discovered it was a powerful antidote against the many discouragements we face as writers. And the tonic begins the moment you start composing. But wait! There are rules to follow as you begin.

1. Have fun with it. This IS about ultimate things, but it’s NOT about perfection–grammatical, linguistic, or otherwise.

2. Don’t worry about originality. Many other writers have expressed brilliant thoughts before us. Beg, borrow, and steal from them (with attribution, of course!).

3. Consider it a living document that will grow, deepen, and re-shape as you move further into your art and your faith.

4. Post it somewhere you can see it, so it can prod, re-focus, and inspire you as you work.

That’s it. So here is part of my ever-changing manifesto. I share it with you simply as an illustration. Each writer’s credo will bear the marks of her own passage and thought.

* There is no part of human experience that is not worthy of attention, illumination, and restoration.

* I commit to writing not simply out of curiosity, out of delight in words, or a desire to entertain. All these are good enough motives, but will produce lesser works. My best and most honest writing will be done where my skin meets the world in the thinnest, rawest places.

* Writing is a vocation, a calling, a kind of pilgrimage that takes us, like Abraham, from one land to another, through, of course, wastelands, where the promise of a promised land appears invisible and impossible, but the writing inexorably, day by day, moves us closer to holiness, the city of God.

* Words contain power to slay and to resuscitate. Every work describing the world as it truly is will do both: there cannot be resuscitation without death; there cannot be death without resuscitation.

* Writing is a response back to a word-creating God who invites us–just as he invited Adam–to name all that is, to complete a creation that is still undone, still unfinished. We speak back because creation was intended to be a conversation, not a monologue.

* Writing recognizes that faith and spirit are not disembodied abstract ideas, but are incarnated in the world around us. Our faith calls us to the things of this world—to mud and fish slime, to huckleberries and stingrays— to love them, to speak their names, to find in them the glory that was spoken into their very cells.

* Writing from faith is not an attempt to contain or explicate God, to unravel mystery, the wonders that surround us, but rather to articulate mystery, that it may draw us, first, to the edge of his cloak, then closer . . .

Enjoy the process! And count us in! Share at least one of your own writing beliefs with all of us here. Perhaps we’ll add yours to our own!