Art’s nine sisters have helped me write my novels, and these experiences have me convinced that altogether too much stress is laid on what’s been called the “craft” of writing.
This is because writing is an art, not a craft. The purpose of Art is to communicate. The purpose of Craft is to perform a concrete task. (A book that is written to teach a craft is still Art, because it exists simply to communicate this information.)
Almost anyone can learn almost any craft, and become good at it. All it takes is possession of the requisite body parts and an intact nervous system. I speak as a Person With Disabilities (some of which are severe, progressing, and are likely to be the death of me). When I still had the full use of my hands and arms, I greatly enjoyed craftwork. My first experience of “being published,” was when several of my original crochet patterns were purchased by two craft magazines.
Working to produce something tangible and useful (elegant or beautiful is dandy, too) is very therapeutic, and, if you’ll excuse the cliché, “empowering.” And the creativity to “make stuff” is one of the things that sets us apart on this rock we share with so many other creatures.
(A number of these creatures also exhibit the ability to learn, remember, use tools, and manipulate their environments; and some great apes kept in captivity have taken up fingerpainting, for lack of something more appropriate – such as foraging for food – to occupy their time. Heck, even objects that we are accustomed to classifying as “inanimate,” such as paper, plastic, and metal, can exhibit a rudimentary form of “‘memory.” But these activities of the lower orders lack the spontaneity, variety, and reasoning of true creativity.)
There do have to be some rules. In the case of Craft, fibers, woods, metals and clays must be of the appropriate quality, and worked with the appropriate level of skill, or else they must be sold as “seconds,” until the right materials can be sourced, and practice, on the part of the worker, makes perfect. Art has a somewhat greater margin of creative leeway, but still within limits. Almost any surface can be painted, but some kinds of paintings require a foundation of tightly stretched canvas prepared with gesso, to show the artist’s talent to its greatest advantage.
Of course, there is some overlap between Art and Craft. Simple dwellings and drab structures can be beautified, and the quality of life and productivity of their inhabitants enhanced, by the creative application of paint. And in the immortal words of somebody whose identity I’ve forgotten, “you can’t not communicate.” A shoddy piece of craftwork that can’t serve its function, speaks volumes about its maker that no amount of glowing praise on the packaging can shout down. A book whose cover art is poorly rendered, does not reflect its content, or is so badly bound that it falls apart with the first reading, is not the fault of the wordsmith, although it does convey a poor impression of the company he keeps. But while an attractive, accurate, sturdy binding produced with 100 percent post-consumer, acid-free paper and environmentally-friendly soybean ink can convey a heart-warming concern for our stewardship over this planet, it can’t make incoherent writing between the covers become clear.
Thus, not everybody is capable of producing Art. Art materials can be procured, and the mechanics of using them can be taught, but the ability to clearly express meaning can permanently escape the producer. A sneezed-snot spatter does not a visual masterpiece make.
Similarly, spelling, grammar and punctuation can be manipulated for artistic effect, but a thorough understanding of the rules that have stood the test of time is necessary, before those rules may be “broken” with impunity. The popular disdain for all such conventions (in the name of “free expression”) simply scrambles syntax into unwieldy word salad.
Surprisingly, often the more ungrammatical, ill-punctuated, and misspelled the manuscript, the greater is its contemporary critical acclaim. Yet, the same critics go howling for the heads of those who apply adjectives and adverbs to their writing; apparently unaware that to restrict the use of a language’s inherently creative units – its vocabulary and parts of speech – while citing “modernity,” “simplicity,” or, insultingly, “attention span,” not only undermines their position on unfettered “creativity,” but also is tantamount to tearing out tongues.