What is craft? Often the act of writing is portrayed as a Jack Kerouac-esque wild night of divine inspiration. A moment that is fleeting, rare, and impossible to predict. However many writers know that is not how writing works. As Isabelle Allende says "Show up, show up, show up and after awhile the muse shows up, too." What this means is turning to your computer or notebook day in and day out and writing. Sometimes a writer can go for weeks without writing anything they find valuable or pretty or intelligent; but somewhere in the volume of words on paper there might be an ember of your next great poem or story.
At a recent conference I attended a talk by Grant Faulkner, a writer and Executive Director of NaNoWriMo, called "The Power of Writing With Abandon." He said "Inspiration is overrated. It's not worth waiting around for." By aiming for quantity the writer will eventually create quality. As Faulkner noted, "You can't edit a blank page." Faulkner, Allende and many other professional writers will tell you that the biggest thing separating aspiring writers from their artistic vision isn't a lack of talent but a lack of discipline.
That's where craft comes in. It's only when your page is filled from top to bottom with words that you can begin the act of crafting your piece. This is different from editing. I think it's appropriate that we associate the word craft with the act of making, the act of creating something with your hands. Like a carpenter sanding a piece of wood to let it's beauty gleam. As a writer you too have trees and planks and boards to choose from to create your work. This wood is your dictionary, the sander your thesaurus, and you the carpenter showing up to work everyday to make something beautiful.
While we all have moments of waking up at 2 A.M. to scribble something in a notebook, I often find the next day when I read what I have written it is not something ready to go out in the world- yet. Those scribbles are just ideas, just sparks in the night, and the actual poem takes time to reveal it's whole self. To return to our carpentry metaphor the idea is a beautiful piece of walnut and in the process of shaping it I might discover a knot, or a vein that I did not see coming and there lies the true beauty of the wood. I never would have discovered those veins, or rings, or heart shaped knots without the work of cutting, sanding and polishing. That is craft, and your poems and stories deserve the same consideration.
To that end below is a list of some our favorite books on craft. They lean heavily on the poetry side of things (I focused on poetry in school) and some of them have elements of life advice too (always useful!). They are books I have turned to again and again when I need a reminder to focus on the work and not the end result.
Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino
A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver
Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, Janet Burroway
Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott
What are your favorite books on craft? The writing life? Share with us in the comments!
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