A friend asked me the other day whether I thought of my photography as “art.” That, needless to say, led to a discussion of whether writing should be classified as “art” — or whether it is a “craft.” It’s not a new question, and you’ll find other writers addressing it on the Web. But it’s the sort of question that often comes up when we, as writers, try to explain to non-writers what it is, exactly, that we do.
The problem we so often encounter is that non-writers tend to imagine that writing is rather like talking: Anyone can do it, right? I mean, talking is just putting words together in the right order — how is writing any different? People with this attitude, you’ve probably noticed, are often the same people who blithely declare, “Oh, I think I’ll write a novel one day,” as if it’s the sort of thing one schedules like a dental appointment.
Many visual artists, I’m told, have difficulty accepting “writing” as an art, at least as an art that deserves to be considered right up there with, say, painting and sculpture and such. Yet another problem is that many writers themselves prefer not to think of writing as an art. James Chartrand, blogging on “Men with Pens” (http://menwithpens.ca/is-writing-an-art-or-a-trade/), writes, “Huh. I’m just a guy who can write for money.” In his view, writing is a trade — just another business, right up there with brick-laying and flipping burgers. And a trade is a craft.
So let’s toss out some definitions here. First of all, what is a “craft,” exactly? There are two ways that one can define it. One is the definition of “crafts” as distinct from “arts” in an “arts and crafts” show. Artists fiercely defend the title of “art” and quite often sneer at those who offer mere “crafts” — beaded jewelry, quilts made from pre-patterned fabric, cute candles, and all the rest. My sister got into this discussion with a relative, trying to defend her work as a stained glass artist as “art” as opposed to simply the “craft” of putting a bunch of glass pieces together.
The second definition of “craft” refers specifically to one’s “trade” — one learns one’s craft, until one is proficient enough to make it a paying trade. This is the definition that Chartrand is using.
Let’s get back to the “arts and crafts” dichotomy, however. When you visit an arts and crafts show, I’m betting that you don’t have much difficulty distinguishing one from the other. When you pass a booth filled with oil paintings, or hand-made lamp-worked glass beads, or bronze statuary, you probably think “artist.” When you pass a booth filled with little dolls made from lace and clothespins, you probably think “crafter.”
So here’s my definition: First, a craft is something that can be taught. One can write down, or follow, a set of specific instructions to produce a craft item. For example, if you make dolls out of clothespins, you could write an article telling me, and hundreds of other people, how to make very similar dolls. One of my favorite crafts is to make Christmas angels out of seashells — and I could easily tell you how to do exactly the same thing.
Second, though this isn’t always the case, a craft typically involves assembling items that already exist in one form or another, often to a pattern. For example, crafting a beaded necklace means putting together an assembly of beads. You may choose the beads and the pattern, but you don’t create the beads. Many crafts come, literally, in kits, from which one can assemble a finished product. The quality of the product depends on the individual’s skill, which comes from practice — but at the end of the day, your kit and mine will probably look much the same. (Except mine probably won’t be finished.)
Craft as “trade” takes this concept to the next level — more skill is required, but it is obtained through practice and instruction. There is still the sense that, with the right instruction, nearly anyone could achieve the same results. A trade often involves a great deal of repetitive work — in the case of writing, for instance, turning out copy, press releases, brochures, technical manuals, documentation, etc. that follow fairly predictable formulas.
Now let’s look at art. To my mind, art is the process of creating something out of nothing. That doesn’t mean that tools and supplies aren’t required — but art starts with the blank canvas. Whether it’s a block of stone or wood, a lump of clay, an untouched canvas, or the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, it starts out formless. The artist is one who looks at that “blank,” and conceives of a way to create something that did not exist before.
Second, it cannot be taught, packaged into a kit, or precisely duplicated. While an artist can teach the techniques of a given art to another artist, the student will not replicate the works of the teacher. Two artists will look at the same model, or landscape, or still life, and come up with completely different visions. Your art will never look precisely like mine, and vice versa.
Third… and here’s a key factor… I believe that when you look at a work of art, you don’t instantly think, “Hey, no biggie, I could do that.” When I look at a needlework kit, I know I could do that. When I look at a bead necklace, I know I could do that. When I look at a photograph, I know that I could probably do that. When I look at many other crafts, I know that I could probably accomplish them if I followed the instructions or attended a class.
When I see someone painting a landscape or sketching a portrait, I don’t think “I could do that.” In my case, I would say that this is not my “art.” I know that it would take a great deal more instruction to enable me to create a passable portrait than it would to learn how to craft even the most complex bead necklace. But even if I did learn the techniques required, my landscape would look nothing like your landscape, or my instructor’s landscape, or the landscape that inspired me to learn how to paint in the first place. It would be uniquely mine — or, it would not be “art.”
So how does this apply to writers? In my opinion, writers are no different from painters, sculptors, or whatever: They create something out of nothing. They begin with the blank page, and on that page they draw people who never existed and make us not only believe they exist, but weep over their sorrows and laugh over their joys. They draw worlds that have never existed and could never exist and make us yearn to move there. They weave ideas that change the way we view the world and treat our neighbors.
Further, each writer creates something uniquely his or her own. There are thousands of fictional detectives, but one will never mistake Hercule Poirot for Sherlock Holmes. Even in the ever-expanding world of vampire novels, one wouldn’t mistake Twilight for Sookie Stackhouse. We read novels, stories, poetry and essays for the unique voice of that “artist,” for the opportunity to meet characters and visit worlds that only that writer can create. A writer who is an artist is one who not only creates something from nothing, but creates something unique from nothing.
But… a writer cannot accomplish this without, and here’s that pesky word again, having learned the craft. Brilliant writers are, I believe, both born and made. Inspiration is only half the battle. If a writer doesn’t learn to assemble the components, to follow the instructions, then there is the risk that the blank page will be filled with the literary equivalent of hotel art. It may look pretty, but it has no depth and moves no one.
There’s nothing wrong with crafting. A lot of us are “crafting.” We’re putting food on the table by creating articles, copy, web content, and whatever else pays the bills. You’re not alone; Charles Dickens earned a living editing a magazine (Household Words, which morphed into All the Year Round). Most of us, like Chartrand, don’t kid ourselves into believing that these works are “art.” What they are, however, is art’s training ground. The more skilled and successful you become at your “craft,” the better your chances of turning that blank page into genuine art. And when you do, you have the right to call it what it is.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.