Somewhere I read that Bruce Springsteen writes songs like a carpenter but I’m still not sure if it was meant as an insult. I personally envy carpentry skills but never much liked the bruce.
Also, the other day over at Conversational Reading there was a post criticizing writers like Joyce, Pynchon, Wallace because they imposed too stiff a design on their work and rarely let it “get away from them,” which seems equivalent to saying they suffered from an excess of craft (maybe?)
Sometimes I think it’s a word we use when, as writers, we’re anxious about not having tangible, repeatable techniques the way carpenters, chefs, or painters do. In case we get accused of just making it up as we go along.
If writing can be likened to a relationship – a friendship, or a love – then craft is equivalent to time spent together. It’s a learning of the mischief, the tics, the prejudices, the strength of the person. Once we know, then we can trust. Craft is the familiarity that we require, when we sit down at a blank page, to trust.
The ‘craft analogy’ to “art” (as well as to “politics” (statecraft)) has an old, rich history – one that includes, at its heart, the question of whether “craft” is analogically related to “art” at all (and is not, instead, “art” itself).
The problem many people have with ‘writing songs is like working wood’ has to do with instrumentality metastasizing and becoming the whole of one’s relation to a made thing. – which would mar both the enjoyment of a song and the usefulness of a chair.
I’d also deny that Joyce’s plainly beautiful sentences – maybe a third of Ulysses – aren’t “imposed on” at all by the novel’s “design” or the reader’s sensitivity to its structures. If Gravity’s Rainbow errs at all in this regard – and, to me, it doesn’t – , it’d be on the side of too little imposition of “design”. – and Wallace’s sentences are ‘too structured’??
I think that when artists talk of “craft”, often it evinces a craving, a yearning, for the credibility or authenticity believed to attach to manual labor, as well as to a natural interest in the mechanical details themselves of some particular piece or kind of work.
I’m with you, Steve. At work right now, the higher ups are trying to change our title from “Technical Writer” to “Information Engineer,” which just smacks of bullshit. I talked about it with my manager, who is equally perturbed by it, and who reasons it as “Writing is not engineering. With engineering, there is a documented way of ‘doing it right.’ A bridge spans this length and needs to support this weight, and so much have this particular amount of support and steel and structure, etc. With writing and documentation, there is none of that. It is not engineering.”
The higher ups think it’ll add an aire of importance to the position, as in the software industy, tech writers are something of an afterthought. I just think it would make us look like a joke, a la calling a janitor a “custodial engineer.”
I was also reading an article in a British rag the other day about American letters which centered the crux of its view that we’re all formless and willy-nilly ova hyah on the idea that Pynchon’s whole style consisted of formless improvisation, and could do with a nice (British?) attention to detail.
The consistently inconsistent consensus that Pynchon is at either of those extremes seems pretty comparable to the accusations of rigidity or mushy-mush on the parts of Joyce or Wallace. People appear just as likely to impute any of these three (plus a few others we could probably think of) with either of those qualities, leading me to see craft or form in the minds of those doing the reading, at least, as something which is there as a sort-of intelligent way to make how they ‘feel’ sound more concrete, like the word ‘flow’ in conversations about poetry.
Craft, or form, is less an actual description, sometimes, than just a way to lend weight to how the writing affected us; in the case of those who are doing the writing, the inverse might stand: it’s less an actual description of a process or concrete happening than it is a catch-all for describing how we affected the writing.
You might like the book The Existential Pleasures of Engineering by Samuel Forman, Darby. It’s not about writing but I think you would find it interesting. There’s actually some really interesting writing about engineers and writing (the topic of my dissertation), You should write that essay.
i’d never really heard of an engineer’s role put that way, but that’s really interesting. i’ll have to pass that on to my manager. though, i still have to say that “information engineer” sounds ridiculous.
When I think of a writer “working on his/her craft,” I account for the extra influences, such as reading or blogging, that attribute to the overall work a writer produces but doesn’t necessarily get credited to their “craft” as often as I think it should. For me because of my inexperience, huge parts of my craft-building include reading a lot more than I write and reading/sometimes commenting on blogs like this one. One of the things I admire most in a lot of the writers on here and similar places is the attention they pay to those other craft-building activities, such as reading and promoting. Sure, I love to write, but for my craft to be respected, even just by me, it’s gotta be more holistic than sitting down and pumping out MY WORDS.
As for what is craft (your real question), I see it as that big hunk of activity, style, and process that happens between idea and final product, influenced by way more than just that single moment of writing.
I like the “big hunk of activity”. That rings true, at least for me. Usually when people ask me about writing I generally tell them that you have to relearn it all every time you sit down. One story to the next, one novel to the next, they all have their different requirements. The craft comes in knowing how you work, in knowing which parts you have to labor through, and knowing and allowing yourself that you have to labor through those sections, and knowing which sections you excel in, so you can dive into those in a big satisfying rush.