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Excellence --or Love? Turning Artful Craft into Art

Posted by Priscilla on February 3, 2012

I am visiting colleges this week with my seventeen-year-old, and I am struck by the way colleges seek to define themselves.  What sets apart one college from that other college you are looking at?  And what does it tell you about the college if it focuses on one aspect above all the others?

College A is all about community:  “we hang together;  we work, live, and play together.  Come here, and you’ll be a part of our community for life.”  That would appeal to one of my children and probably make the other run screaming from the room.  Community can be warm and loving, safe and secure; it can be oppressive and smothering for those who need to be alone.

College B is all about stellar academics:  research, PhD’s, internships, setting the student up for life.

Which is it to be?  Such a hard choice.  Both colleges would probably insist that they offer both.  And they do.  But emphasizing academics feels cold.  Emphasizing community feels weak.

We have the same problem when we write.  It’s all about the craft, say the writing conferences we attend.  Admittedly craft is vital.  If we don’t know how to put a story together--how to present a protagonist with motivation, a goal or two, obstacles to that goal, and eventually achievement of something--our stories and novels may very well never move beyond our intimate circle.  But craft can be perfectly executed, our language beautiful, and our sub plots intricate and still our story falls flat.

Of course, say writers like Robert Olen Butler,  if the story doesn’t come “from where you dream,” there’s no truth to it.  What he really said was “Art does not come from the mind.  Art comes from the place where you dream (pg. 13, From Where You Dream).”  I added the part about truth because I think only true stories are worth reading.  Not true as in “non-fiction” true, but true as in “straight,” as in “genuine,” as in “the way life is and the way I want it to be” true.  YA author Joyce Magnin tells me “you must open a vein and bleed on the page,” as she tries to encourage my writing to be true.  What are they saying?  Is it not that craft --academics-- is not enough?  That true emotion --community -- must come alongside in a perfect melding of excellence and love?

I think so.  Knowing this is easy.  Doing it?  Not so simple.  As I work on craft, how can I be sure that I am being true to the dream, to the emotional heart of the story? Here is one suggestion from my journey:

Is your character burying her mother in some bitterness?  Is he trying to do right but quaking in his boots?  How can you write that bitterness, that fear, without hitting your reader over the head with it?  Go back in your memory to the very moment when a wrong was done against you, or when you were most afraid.  Do you see yourself?  Good.  Now look around wherever you are.  What do you see around you?  What can you smell?  What taste is in your mouth?  Reach out your hand and touch something in your memory.  What does it feel like?  Step one is making sure that the sense details are clearly written.  Now be very honest with yourself.  What vow did you make at that very moment?  Pull the vow into the present and give it to your character.  That vow will be the deep heart, the deep truth that will take a well crafted scene and turn it into art.

What do you think?



Posted by Jerry on
OK Priscilla, you really got me thinking with this post. The sentence "the deep truth that will take a well crafted scene and turn it into art" really got to me.

I am editing my own story and trying to develop the characters more. Turning the craft into art.

You've given me something to think about. Thank you.

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