Learning The Craft of Writing

In my earlier posts on What is Writing, I suggested that we have to attend to two elements of writing to become something like a great writer. Let me qualify that statement. Even if you want to be a good writer, it will happen to the extent that you attend to these two elements. They are drawn from a definition I proposed for writing that goes like this:

Writing is the overflow of the soul into a pattern of words encoded in visual symbols (letters or hierogliphs) for the purpose of communication

I argued that the first half of this definition is just as crucial as the second half, but that a writing program really can’t deal with the first half. Writing programs teach the craft of writing, not the personal qualities or experiences that make someone a great writer. Picture Hemingway writing without his experiences. It wouldn’t have been him. He wouldn’t have been Hemingway. He might have written what he wrote well, though I question even that, but what he wrote wouldn’t have mattered.

It isn’t enough to learn the craft of writing.

On the other hand, it isn’t enough to have experience either. Plenty of big game hunters have mumbled through sentences around the campfire failing utterly to capture the drama of the charging elephant with its ivories flashing, feet stomp-trampling the brush, mammal-sweat-and-leather scent flooding the hunters flared nostrils, the click of the trigger and the flash in the pan deciding who is god and who mortal because they didn’t know where to put a comma.

The craft of writing teaches the writer how to match the form with the content; “to suit the matter to the word, the word to the matter,” to adapt my master.

You cannot escape the need for practice. I know personally because while  I was a fairly talented writer growing up, I didn’t practice the craft as I should have, thinking it was a matter of inspiration, not practice.  If I did want to practice, I only knew how based on what my teachers had taught me or what I experienced of story and reading.

Happily I was brought up in a very verbal environment. My brothers and I yelled at each other all the time. My parents read to us a lot. It is to this reading by my parents that I believe I owe 90% of all my love of learning.

Both of my parents loved stories, as do all unmalformed humans. But you can see that this means that they filled up my soul. There’s plenty there to overflow. Lots of Narnia, mythology, Perelandra, folk tales, Proverbs and proverbs, Shakespeare, Dumas, etc. etc. This was a gift, one of the best they gave me.

And all of that made writing easier for me because it gave me a taste for good writing and an impatience for boring, unimaginative, badly formed, mechanical writing. It all made me a little afraid to try writing stories on my own. I’ve always loved imaginative writing, but until recently I’ve been intimidated by it.

Recently I’ve discovered the craft of writing through classical rhetoric. I can’t begin to describe what it meant to me to read Aristotle’s rhetoric as an adult. I know that isn’t about telling stories, though he includes a bit about the “statement of facts.” But he did identify the thought process a rhetorician (speaker or writer) always has to go through to write or speak. Identifying this process makes it possible to consciously and deliberately imitate it. Nobody had done that in writing before Aristotle!

Having his handbook is a help, but it isn’t enough. A writer also needs a coach. I am still an undisciplined writer. I know that. I pay close attention to everything I read about writing, but I will probably never overcome some of the bad habits I’ve developed as a writer. But I’m beginning to surround myself with coaches, especially in the apprenticeship.

I’ve also begun to dream about joining a writer’s workshop, like the one in Iowa. My path is strewn with obstacles and a few pits, but someday I’d love to get that high level of coaching for fiction writing.

Let me return, however, to my point, hopefully illustrated by the foregoing. Writing, the craft, requires coached practice. Students need to learn the tools of the craft (grammar, punctuation, schemes, tropes, etc.). They need to practice using them and to have their exercises assessed. They need to be corrected and instructed by masters.

Then, when they have souls filled with matter, they’ll know how to suit the word to the matter.

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Proserpina has ascended

Proserpina has ascended from Hades, set free from her cruel husband, the lord of the underworld.  Ceres, her mother, is rejoicing and her singing makes the flowers bloom, the grass green, and the sun shine forth with all his mighty heat.  Mourning is over for her, the goddess of crops and fertility, and so the seasons of death are behind us for now.  The earth no longer lies hard and frigid, covered with dead tree litter.  The tears of the sky fall no longer frozen and white, but wet and hot, steaming back up from the earth they hit. 

So held the Romans – riveting but misguided.  Jehovah spins the earth and He colors it with seasons, white, brown, green, and golden.  He said it Himself – “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and day and night shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22).

At this point in our journey around the sun, we are enveloped in warmth.  We acquaint ourselves once again with the sea, plopping down on her sandy shores – umbrellas, chairs, and coolers at hand.  We make castles on her doorstep and splash just within her threshold, knowing that her doors will never again be unhinged, upon her Maker’s promise.  And so, we play.

When the earth’s great candle burns too hot, we flee to the mountains, escaping the sun’s heat by huddling closer to him.  Leaving the many comforts of home, we live simply for a time in the woods, encamped on flat land between hills, finally enjoying firelight and the sight of the stars again.  On those few days we excitedly rejoice in flaming marshmallows sandwiched between chocolate and graham crackers.  Technology holds no sway at such altitude.

Summer is here – heat, sun, storms, waves, and mountains, all gifts given from the hand of the Father who alone spins and keeps the earth.

There are things that only God knows

Here’s one of them, Karen. I don’t think this can be overstated. 8 days to 25 years. 5 days to David and Bethany’s wedding!