I recently read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Her debut novel, this highly imaginative tale runs deep with emotion and insight into human nature, and is beautifully written. For instance, take this lyrical description of the main character’s fragile faith in meaning, tested to breaking point by the hardship of life on the Alaskan frontier:
All her life she had believed in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses. It was the flutter of moth wings on glass and the promise of river nymphs in the dappled creek beds. It was the smell of oak trees on the summer evening she fell in love, and the way dawn threw itself across the cow pond and turned water to light.
From start to finish, Ivey’s prose – perfectly measured – gleams like the morning sun on newly fallen snow; little wonder it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. As such, reading The Snow Child made me realise how much fine-tuning I have yet to do on my own manuscript, and I have since begun a detailed line edit aimed at making every sentence read exactly the way I want it. Reading your own work in the light of something so expertly crafted can be dispiriting, but I’m always grateful for the spur to improve what I do. Also, although humbling, it’s a great comfort to be reminded that there is, after all, something that can be done to improve one’s writing.
Great writing can give the impression that the author possesses some secret, mystical knowledge that only a select few happen to have been born with. But this is an illusion belying the fact that great writers must work deliberately (sometimes for years) to craft a text that will have the desired impact. That writing, like any art, is a kind of making is a fact we can easily overlook. To lose sight of that fact, however, can spell disaster for anyone hoping to master the craft. In a post-script to her novel, Ivey recounts how studying creative writing at college left her feeling displaced and without any sense of how to proceed in order to improve her work. She writes:
“The stories we read and wrote were so far from the magical, dark woods of my childhood imagination, and the direction was so vague and bizarrely undermining, as if the instructors weren’t sure there was a method to art, and if there was they might not want to share it.”
The idea of there being “a method to art” evidently runs against the grain of how some aspiring writers (and, strangely, even some writing teachers) imagine what it is they’re trying to achieve. The very word method may seem too mechanical or “hands-on” to some, at odds with a dubious yet oft-held ideal of free-spirited creativity, according to which inspiration and design are virtually opposed. But asking how of great writing need not mean reducing it to a dry procedure, or a banal checklist of dos and don’ts. Rather, it may simply be to acknowledge that the author, like any artist, has a job to do (i.e. getting the reader to see certain things and to feel a certain way) and that there are better and worse ways of getting the job done.
That simple acknowledgement is what Ivey found lacking from her college writing program, and it wasn’t until she began studying journalism that she discovered a way to make some progress with her art. Working collaboratively with her fellow journalism students on more clearly defined projects, putting into practice skills that were “concrete and teachable”, she says, “we could finally roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty… we were apprentices to a trade.”
“Apprentices to a trade” may evoke the daily grind even more than the word “method”, but Ivey raises an important point here. For how did people learn to write literature before there were creative writing courses? Not by resting content with a first draft, or sitting idly waiting for the Muses to strike, but by reading widely, by keeping company with the best that had been thought and said, by studying and imitating great examples, and by describing and methodically applying principles of effective composition. In brief, they diligently apprenticed themselves to teachers (alive and dead) whose knowledge and example they could trust.
Traditionally, art has always been understood as a virtue of the practical intellect, referring to a skill acquired through learning and practice, and to human workmanship generally. This is not to deny the importance of the emotions or the imagination in art. Rather, it is to affirm these faculties as basic to all human making, and (from a Christian perspective) to our divinely privileged nature as creative (and not merely reactive) animals. Reading The Snow Child has prompted me to view my novel in a new way: as an artefact, a thing that is made, fashioned, crafted. As such, it has renewed my determination to make every line “just so”. I don’t see this is a betrayal of the creative spirit; rather, it amounts to doing the best job I can with the tools and resources available, to express the poetic vision that inspired me to write the book in the first place. To me, that is “art” in a nutshell.
I’m reminded in all this of Francine Prose’s advice to would-be writers, that “language is the medium we use much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint… words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.” This sort of comparison with other art forms can be highly instructive. For example, musicians who excel at improvising, or actors or dancers who manage to inject into their performances a strong personal spirit or emotion, are typically those who work hardest at studying the greats and mastering the basics. Aspiring painters sketch the masters and draw the same subject over and over, while musicians practice scales and learn to perform classic arrangements. Practice, technique, method: all these are of a piece with artistic excellence. When it comes to creativity, asking how of those who have achieved highly, and emulating tried and tested techniques, does not constitute a cheat’s method; rather, such is the hard work required to cultivate the soil in which the germ of creativity can feed and flourish.
Nor does asking how mean we are not concerned with inspiration. “Inspiration” is an ineffable spirit, or moment of genius, that gives rise to the best kind of writing or artistic achievement. As the name suggests, inspiration is like a breath drawn in or received from without; its natural correlative is expiration: a kind of output. In other words, the inspired artist still has a job to do in giving his vision some kind of concrete expression. (And as any singer will tell you, having taken a deep breath there are still a hundred and one things that can go wrong!) Of course, the ability to choose the right words or images, or lay down a perfectly balanced sentence, or bend the rules of ordinary grammar and syntax to achieve some memorable effect – none of these hallmarks of fine writing can be reduced to a simple formula or a set of readily transferable skills. But such artful expression comes more readily to those who pay close attention to the technicalities of their craft, and methodically apply what they have learned. In short, the most inspired and inspiring writers are those whose love of what they do is not tarnished for their being acutely mindful of the whys and hows of literary excellence. The two belong hand-in-hand.
Approaching writing as a craft, therefore, means becoming intensely interested in language – the writer’s medium – and how myriad choices stand to strengthen or undermine the meaning and impact of a text. Some pay this kind of close attention to detail as they compose, while others will tend to such matters only once a draft is complete. But the question of whether or not each word, each phrase, each sentence contributes effectively to the whole, cannot be avoided if you aim to write well.
Though the craft of writing runs deeper than simple word choice, and ultimately serves the imaginative or poetic vision that inspired the work, we can get some idea of the importance of craft by considering the mechanics of a simple sentence. Here’s a typical example of some fairly ordinary writing (the sort of thing I see students do a lot):
Mary entered the room, she knew something was wrong straight away.
What we have here is a comma splice: two independent clauses that could each work as a separate sentence, “spliced” together with a comma. Grammatically, it’s up the creek because that’s not what commas are for. (Yes, we can read it and even get what the author means. But it’s a casual way of throwing information at a reader that, if not kept in check, breeds lazy and artless expression. Imagine a builder complaining that he was expected to lay bricks in staggered pattern, bonded with mortar in the traditional way. He might argue it’s easier just to lay them down however they come to hand, letting gravity hold them in place. The end result might resemble a wall and even serve some rudimentary purpose. But would it stand the test of time? In all likelihood it would end in ruins, together with the builder’s reputation. Writers build with words, not bricks, but the principle is the same.) The easiest way to fix a comma splice is to use a full stop to make each clause a stand-alone sentence:
Mary entered the room. She knew something was wrong straight away.
That fixes the error, but we may still have a problem. Novice writers often fall foul of the comma splice because they sense there is a close connection between two clauses, and that a full stop would impose too strong a break. In the example above, Mary’s entering the room and her realising that something is wrong are clearly connected events – one leads directly to the other – and presumably the writer wants to stress this close connection. To properly combine two independent clauses in a single sentence, however, requires the use of a semi-colon, or a conjunction such as “and”:
Mary entered the room; she knew something was wrong straight away.
Mary entered the room, and she knew something was wrong straight away.
Alternatively, one could restructure the sentence, converting “straight away” into a subordinating conjunction up front:
As soon as Mary entered the room, she knew something was wrong.
Which of these grammatically correct options works best is an open question. Stylistically, I prefer the semi-colon to the use of “and”, which sounds clunky here. That said, a semi-colon makes the sentence look and sound fractured. In terms of flow, therefore, I think the subordinating conjunction up front works best. Another advantage to this option is the way it relocates the information about there being “something wrong” to the end of the sentence. Mary’s discovery that something is wrong is really the main point of the sentence, and so having it at the end helps give it more emphasis. You can see how a little craft goes a long way, and how even tending to small grammatical details can assist in clear and artful expression.
How about spicing up the sentence with a more descriptive verb? E.g.:
As soon as Mary tiptoed into the room, she knew something was wrong.
Personally, I find the additional detail distracting, as it’s really beside the point. The simple matter-of-fact nature of Mary’s discovery is better served by plain language, which also feels tenser. If the fact Mary was walking on tiptoes were important, I would probably include it in an earlier sentence:
Mary made her way on tiptoes toward the kitchen. As soon as she entered the room, she knew something was wrong.
This simple illustration reveals how many important choices a writer is faced with on almost every line. And choose the writer must, either wittingly or unwittingly. From the level of punctuation, to word selection, sentence structure and the layering of detail within a paragraph or an entire story, the simplest of choices can make the difference between writing that sings and is celebrated, and writing that falls flat and is soon forgotten. Learning to identify the relevant choices and equipping yourself to respond in an informed and thoughtful way, is what mastering the craft of writing is all about. Reading, listening, questioning and caring are all key to development in this area. As I prepare to teach a class in Prose Fiction this semester, I pray I might encourage my students do all these things, while sharing my own developing understanding of the method of art when it comes to writing well.
James Cooper, 2016