Learning the Craft
If you and I want to be taken seriously as writers, it goes without saying that we have to study the craft. However we do it (read Aristotle, enroll in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, study McKee and Coyne and Stephen King), we must learn the timeless principles of storytelling with the same thoroughness that a brain surgeon applies (we hope) before he starts drilling into our skulls.
That’s the craft.
But there’s another, even more important element to this enterprise.
What I mean by “our craft” are those stylistic and storytelling instincts that are unique to you and me alone and that constitute our voice.
Hemingway. Faulkner. Chekhov. Toni Morrison. Tom Wolfe. Each of their styles is unique. Each possesses a perspective that is his or hers alone, and each has a way of telling a story that is unmistakable, one of a kind.
What’s your style? Can you define your voice? Can we pick a sentence out of something you wrote and say of it, “This could only have been written by you?”
If you and I want to take ourselves seriously as writers, we have to ask ourselves not just, “Am I studying the craft?” but “Am I studying my craft?”
I’ve written before in this space about my friend Paul and his struggles coming to grips with his gifts as a writer.
Right out of the gate, Paul had a distinct voice and a strong instinctive style.
1. His characters were dark. Very dark.
2. They were violent. Beyond-Tarantino violent.
3. Paul had no patience with “backstory.” You know the scene(s) that seems to be required in every novel or movie, where the protagonist reveals (or another device is employed to reveal) the “reason why” she or he does what they do? Paul’s instinct has also been to blow those scenes off. He doesn’t care why people do what they do. Or rather, he believes that the untold answer is more powerful than the told.
4. He hates “private moments.” These are scenes (often without dialogue) when the character is alone or in a non-public venue and, by some act or gesture that he or she believes no other human will witness, reveals some key aspect of their character. An estranged lover, for example, may call up on her Smartphone a saved text from her lost love, revealing by this act that she still cares.
Paul hates those moments too. He will never give you one.
5. He refuses to show any of his characters except in their in-action personas.
6. He refuses to “explain” or “ground” any of his characters’ actions.
Do you see what I’m getting at? Paul has instincts as a writer. These instincts are not the craft. But they’re his craft.
If Paul is going to realize his potential as a writer, he has to master both.
(These instincts may be wrong, by the way. They may be crazy or misguided or just plain dumb. But they also may be the seeds of a unique and unforgettable voice.)
Each of us has a natural style, just as Charles Bukowski did, or Eudora Welty or Hunter Thompson or Jean Rhys. Each of us has a view of life that’s ours alone—and an ear for dialogue and a style of storytelling that belongs to no one but us. Again, that’s not the craft. It’s our craft.
We have to study this. We can’t abdicate or dismiss this component of the writer’s art by saying we’ll do it by instinct, we’ll “know it when we see it.”
We have to become fully conscious of our strengths and our natural style and our instinctive point of view. Like Bob Dylan’s singing voice or Ridley Scott’s sense of visual composition. We have to ask ourselves (and be able to answer): “Does this work? Is it coming from my truest creative heart? Is it me?”
Do you like your body? Do you approve of your face? Same thing with our artistic identities. We can’t change them. They’re what we were issued at the factory. But we can express them. We can refine them. We can make them pop and sing.
That’s the fun of it, isn’t it?
What does your voice sound like? What does a sentence written by you look like? It can take years to learn this. And it’s always changing. Your Muse leads you forward. You’re discovering who you are as you go.
To pursue an art, any art, is to embark on a journey of self-discovery. That’s not a cliche. It’s the reason for the whole trip.
The stories I’ve written, I never knew I had them in me before they came out. I discovered who I was by what I wrote. It was only after those characters and those narratives appeared that I realized they were a part of me. They were me.
To look at a sentence on the page and be able to say, “That’s my voice,” is a hell of a thing. It takes decades and it’s worth decades.
That’s not learning the craft. But it’s learning our craft.