I’m increasingly annoyed by creative writing teachers who talk about “exploring your creativity” as the sole act of fiction writing. Sometimes they talk about teaching creativity as if that was something that could be taught. Everyone is creative; everyone makes things; everyone daydreams and night dreams and thinks fantastical thoughts. Men who scoff at “little superstitious women” will swear that wearing his lucky (smelly) football jersey helped his team win that week’s game. A creative excuse from a creative mind.
But to say that fiction writing is all art (as if the speaker had an understanding of what art really was) and that all that is needed is creativity is to be entirely ignorant of what fiction really is. There are many viewpoints of what great art is, many schools of art, but I think I agree the best with what my friend Tim once said to me, “I subscribe to the notion that art is as its terminology suggests: artifice. Taking something from nature and improving on it.” He said that that was the view of the ancient Greeks who took the figure of the owl and constructed a golden owl. And, yes, nature is beautiful, but either way Art is construction (and, yes, there’s more to it than that). The more well constructed, the more beautifully designed, the better the story. Beauty comes from symmetry and patterns. When we listen to a piece of music we listen for the repetition of the patterns and the various ways that the patterns are constructed, repeated, re-constructed (breaking with the pattern) and re-woven into the piece. But only the master composer knows how to do this with balance and flair; how to make the piece feel like one seamless whole (no parts feel bulky or thin). It takes a long time of working with the music to learn how to construct it in that way.
So does the author with the story.
So too does the carpenter with his woodwork. I liken fiction writing to carpentry all of the time. The ideas of story construction are too ethereal for the beginner to understand in any helpful way (you have to have worked with it a long time in order to discuss it in any meaningful way), but wood and furniture is something that we’ve all been exposed to since we were little. It has the added advantage of being tactile, something we’ve experienced in three dimensions, so it gives a concrete example.
When the beginning writer starts out, she thinks that all she needs to do is tell the story that is in her head, start from the beginning and move to the end, just as the novice to carpentry thinks, “all I have to do to make a table is get four pieces of wood and nail a slab on top of it.” This rarely turns out to be the case (if ever). The novice ends up with this ugly, misshapen thing filled with splinters. It’s wobbly and often falls apart with the first set of dishes placed on top of it. It doesn’t serve its purpose and usually gets hacked apart later for firewood. The secret to creating a magnificent (or at the very least functional) table, the novice learns, is knowledge. The novice must gain the skills of the craft. She must read books, take classes, acquire the right tools, but more than that she must practice, practice, practice. She must learn the traditional methods for table making, find the tools to construct the table and learn the proper technique for using them.
After a while, many readings, many classes, many hundreds of dollars, the novice is still not much better unless she has practiced and failed several times. Then after her twentieth attempt (and many long hours practicing dovetails, hinges, sanding and varnishing), she stands back and to her amazement she has a table. It might still wobble a bit and still look a bit amateur – nothing you’d find in an Ethan Allen catalogue – but it is a sturdy and useable table.
The writer will also follow this pattern of writing a story and winding up with pages of meandering and uninspiring prose, then read about how to construct realistic characters, a vivid realistic world, how to put together a clever, surprising (but not upsetting) plot, how to select out the right words and language and point of view. After years of readings, classes and practice, the writer will have a good sturdy story, but not a great one. If the writer is intent on creating something durable that will be read and re-read beyond the writer’s lifetime (read by anyone beyond her friends and family), then she must go the extra step.
Back to the table. If the woodworker feels strongly after all that time, money and work, she ought to have something beautiful to show, not simply functional, but something that can be put in the dining room and shown off. “See, I made that.” Perhaps even something that can be shown to the world at large. The woodworker learn to recognize what a well-constructed and beautifully designed table looks like (really looks like). To accomplish this she must read more, work with better, more expert woodworkers. There are more secrets to learn, there is a difference between the craft table that can be used in the child’s playroom and the table that can be put in the center of the dining room, and be passed down as an heirloom. The woodworker must delve into the more advanced ideas of furniture construction and design, learn the history of it, learn the variety of techniques that can be applied (and there are so many!). But most of all the woodworker must practice, practice, practice. And often fail, fail, fail.
If the writer wants to be a great writer, say, have a career, the writer too must learn the advanced techniques (must gain skills), work with those who are expert, learn how to construct the patterns, how to invert them, how to weave them back into the overall piece just like a beautiful symphony. This goes beyond word selection to selecting out patterns where to repeat and where to create symmetry. The master writer will give a repetition of patterns and which or repeated, re-constructed (breaking with the pattern) and re-woven into the piece. She will learn the art of when to be simple and when to be complex, finding the right balance (no parts feel too bulky or too thin) making it appear to be one seamless whole. This too takes practice, practice, practice and failure, failure, failure.
And once you’ve created that durable piece that will last beyond your lifetime (if you are able, not all woodworkers can) you can secretly laugh at the people who reagale you with praise at how creative you are. After all, that’s all it took, right?