Writing: Art or Craft? by David Gullen

I remember a conversation in my first writing group from many years ago about whether or not writing could be taught. Some people thought no, that writing alone in all the fields of human endeavour, was somehow special and the ability was innate, Gods-given. The best you could do was encourage, but teaching, darling, was simply not possible.

As a journeyman writer still wet behind the ears I soaked this up. Was it true? I had my doubts. Later I realised this was nonsense. Everything other human activity is taught, from acting to zoology, writing is not that special, not that precious. The conversation moved on to whether writing was art or craft. Over time this has interested me probably far more than it reasonably should.

In paraphrase, the great French poet Paul Valéry wrote that a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned. You can read the full quote in French and translation here, including his reasoning for why he thinks that is.

From my own experiences, and listening to other writers, that’s pretty much true for novels. There’s either not enough time because of a deadline, or you’ve drafted it so many times you’re tired of it. So there we have it – writing is art.

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Except there’s a craft to writing too, the developed skills in use of language, tension, characterisation, and all the other tools in a writer’s toolbox. Skills that, one hopes, never stopped being refined and improved in breadth and depth. And of course we change too.

The other thing I can’t seem to leave alone is leather craft. Is this a craft? The name implies as much but I’ve seen work that has amazed me with its artistry, and with its origins in the working classes isn’t this classification as much a social construct as anything?

I have a theory: The difference between Art and Craft is that craft can be finished.

When I write a novel, given time and inclination I could redraft it forever, but if I make a leather belt when it is made it is done, finished, there is nothing more that could be done to make it more the thing that it already is. In fact doing more would risk ruining it.

Except the learning of the craft never ends. Skills improve, the links between mind and eye and hand strengthen, new tools and techniques are discovered or learned. There’s an art to all this after all.

I still like my theory, but I think what it really shows is art and craft are two hands working together, inspiration and application. If I cook a meal, that is a piece of craft, once it’s done it is done, but the learning (and believe me in this realm I have much to learn) never ends.

Is writing an art or a craft? It’s both, obviously, just like everything we do. And yes, it can be taught. And learned. But what about reading, a lone and possibly snarky voice calls? Reading? Don’t get me started.

Fin.

gullen-dkg1-2012That so-called David Gullen has sold around forty short stories, with recent sales to F&SF and Stupefying Stories, and Eibonvale, and he is the editor of the well-received Once Upon a Parsec: The Book of Alien Fairy Tales from NewCon Press. David currently lives behind several tree ferns in South London with fantasy writer Gaie Sebold, and is the current Chair of Milford SF. His craft work can be seen at Nellug Crafts on Etsy.

About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (www.jaceybedford.co.uk), the secretary of Milford SF Writers (www.milfordSF.co.uk), a singer (www.artisan-harmony.com) and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers (www.jacey-bedford.com). She's also a Home Office / UK Visas and Immigration department licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificates of Sponsorship).
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4 Responses to Writing: Art or Craft? by David Gullen

  1. Great post! I also think writing is an art, very similar to cooking. One does not need to be a chef in order to make good food that offers something of specific value. As a copywriter, I crank out quite a bit of work every week, and it’s a craft, because I finish according to the time/price I’ve quoted. But when I work on my books, I “waste” ridiculous amounts of time for zero compensation, because I hope to eventually create something meaningful, and profit isn’t really a motivating factor. I might never “finish” any of them. Alas, that’s art!

    Like

  2. marionpitman says:

    You may have something about the class element. Things done for a living are crafts, things done by those who don’t need the money are art? There are things, though, I think, that not everyone can learn, or perhaps cannot be taught. I could teach someone the form of a sonnet, but not why one word is better than another in a particular place.

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