Monday, December 28, 2015

You Have to Do it Yourself

I first read this little book in April, 1986, and I still do whatever I can to follow its principles. It might be the single most useful book on writing fiction that I've been able to find.

The craft of writing serves the art of writing and sharpens it.

Craftsmanship is the use of tools and materials in order to make something in a seemly and economical fashion. For instance, it is not craftsmanship to decide to build a table and buy half the lumberyard and have, when the table is finished, approximately eighty or ninety oddly shaped pieces of wood lying around on the floor and hundreds of bent nails and screws and great piles of sawdust. Craftsmanship does indeed carry with it this element of economy of materials. And when it is appropriate to the object being constructed, it acts to enhance.

Craftsmanship is not an 'in-group' word right now. Little attention of a public sort is paid to a writer simply on the grounds of his mastery of materials. Of course that mastery starts with words. And I have been unable to detect on the part of our critics any great differentiation between somebody whose knowledge of words is obviously imprecise and to whom words are frozen like stones to the hand regardless of their shape, color, and so on, and someone who has an obvious richness of knowledge of words -- the playfulness within the word. Craftsmanship is also not particularly admired today for another reason. It is supposed to betoken an absence of creativity to a certain extent. A well-constructed piece of fiction is assumed, if it seems very neat and tight, to have lost something, to have been diminished by the writer, to have been placed on a bed of Procrustes in order to come out even with its own material, and this in itself is considered old-fashioned and probably hostile to the creative spirit.

Furthermore, our age does not care very much about craftsmanship. Most of us don't have to make very many things with our hands anymore. This is not a criticism of the way in which we live in twentieth century America, but people are conditioned by what they do with their bodies. Even though many people have returned to the land and to 'natural' things, the majority of us no longer practice craftsmanship in our lives. Our food is largely prefabricated. Our clothing is almost wholly prefabricated. Our shelter is prefabricated. Our entertainment is almost all prefabricated. Most of our experience in sport is a vicarious and spectator experience. The permissive nature of our sexual morality requires very much less proficiency on our part in the whole broad spectrum of the sexual experience than in ages when things were a little tougher to get away with than they are now, and we have a crowd of helpers to raise our children.... In any event, almost everything has been removed one step away.

When it comes to craft and writing, however, you have to do it yourself. If you blow in sweet and it comes out sour, the best editor in the world cannot help you to anything more than either silence or an inoffensive mumble. So while it may not be possible to teach people much about writing, it is possible for some people to learn something about how to write.
-- William Sloane, The Craft of Writing.
W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1979.

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