Deborah Ratliff: The Art and Craft of Writing

While reading a book review by Parul Sehgal on the book Draft # 4, On the Process of Writing by John McPhee in the New York Times, I came across a line that gave me pause.

“…perhaps writers wax about craft because it’s the easiest part of writing to talk about. It’s much harder to account for the flashes of inspiration, the slant of seeing, the appetite for the world — to know it down to its core…”

As a member of an admin team for one of the largest writing groups on Facebook, we strive to provide our nearly forty-thousand members with pertinent information on the writing process. We conduct workshops on genre, grammar, character development, point of view, and other skills with the intent of offering our members a foundation to build their stories upon.

There are a plethora of workshops, seminars, web pages, articles, and books dedicated to the craft of writing all designed to make us better writers. These are all mechanical tools. We worry about whether the verb tense agrees, have we used certain words too often, did we slip into the wrong point of view? Necessary concerns for the process of writing for we must know how to construct a novel.

Yet, the technical aspects are not enough. There is one very important component to writing, and without it, the words are meaningless. I was in a writing group once with a woman who fancied herself quite the writer. Reading her work, it was flawless, the perfect sentence structure, not a comma out of place, the proper rise and fall of action, the perfectly written novel. Only one problem, it was emotionless. Flawless technically but emotionally void. It lacked passion and passion comes from inspiration. Inspiration is the art of writing.

Merriam-Webster defines inspiration as “a: divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation, b: the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions; c: the act of influencing or suggesting opinions.”

Often inspiration manifests itself in the word muse. In ancient Greece, the nine Muses were the providers of inspiration for creativity among artists and philosophers of the times. Over the centuries, the word muse has become a symbol of inspiration.

The muse of today can take many forms. Surveying a group of writers from all levels of ability uncovered a variety of sources the writers turned to for ideas. Many writers spoke of music, an image, a broken toy, a wooden box having inspired them. One describes the sights, sounds and smells from a brightly lit carnival framed against a dark sky, all sparking a thought leading to a story idea. A teacher stated that introducing his students to the literary masters inspired him to write.

Inspiration is a process of immersing yourself in your surroundings and opening your mind to new ideas. Simple enough it would appear, yet there are hundreds of tips on how to increase creativity available on the Internet. Everything we can touch, smell, or see can be the inspiration needed to spur our writing.

The fact is these are only stimuli to prompt an idea. I believe there is a deeper concept at work when discussing creativity in writing.

If we return to the quote that inspired this article. Sehgal’s book review of McPhee’s Draft # 4 mentioned the the flashes of inspiration, the slant of seeing, the appetite for the world.”  It is the world we paint with words, the impact that we leave with our readers, in addition to the inspiration we gather along the way.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote an essay in 1850 called, The Philosophy of Composition, in which he discusses how good writers write well. He writes,

“There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis — or one is suggested by an incident of the day — or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative — designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.”

Poe is making the same argument that Elif Batuman made in “The Possessed,” her study of Russian literature regarding the notion that writers focus more on the craft than the art of writing.

“All it had were its negative dictates: ‘Show, don’t tell’; ‘Murder your darlings’; ‘Omit needless words.’ As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits — of omitting needless words.”

Poe argues that to be great, literary works should be short in length (thus his penchant for poetry and short story). The writing must be well-crafted as there is no argument that the craft of writing must be precise and correct. However, his third element, a “Unity of effect,” represents the creative spirit of the work and comes before all other components.

In his essay, Poe states an author must know the ending of the story and the emotional impact he or she wishes to convey before beginning to write. Only then can the writer properly decide the “tone, theme, setting, characters, conflict, and plot.” It is this effect that impacts the reader and allows them to feel the emotion the author intended. It is the power of the words to convey a broader meaning.

Writing is more complicated than it initially appears to not only readers but those who choose to write. As Poe stated, most authors would “positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes… at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair… at the cautious selections and rejections.”

To write, we must be open to the inspiration around us, take our cues from whatever source available. We must also know the craft, the show vs. tell, the proper grammar, the art of foreshadowing, all the mechanical parts that create a story.

However, Poe’s “Unity of effect” provides the most valuable component. It is the ability to create a mood, to make a reader laugh, or cry, or flinch in terror. It is the ability to paint the image in a reader’s mind with words as if painting on canvas for the eye to see. It is the lingering thoughts, joys, doubts left when someone reads the last sentence. It is the intangible quality of the author’s intentions and how each reader perceives intent that divides a forgettable story from an unforgettable one.

When you begin the process of writing, and your muse has spoken, and a story idea is swirling in your head, do not forget to consider first what you want your reader to take away from your writing. It will make your story greater.

 

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Resources:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/books/review-draft-no-4-john-mcphee.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FWriting%20and%20Writers&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=9&pgtype=collection&_r=0

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inspiration

https://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/philcmpb.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Philosophy_of_Composition

 

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