Writing is many different things to different people. Some writers are motivated by notions of fame and influence, others by the possibility of money or better job prospects.
I write because I need to write. I write because I love hard questions and resistant answers. I write because, sometimes, what I say helps someone, and that’s a wonderful feeling, one that’s aligned with my life’s purpose.
Before I committed to writing, I drifted along, enjoying many experiences, lacking a way to organize what I was doing and learning. Like some sort of amoeba in a primordial soup, I was fat and happy, intellectually unchallenged at times, but at no risk of splitting myself into fragments too small.
I was also deeply bored and longing for truly worthwhile and frightening growth experiences. I wanted to do something my family could respect, something which I could respect.
What I didn’t want was “fame,” and every time that form of flattery was offered to me as the endpoint, I retracted from my writing.
Throughout my childhood, I watched my dad write. As a professional, well-compensated author, he was ethical, serious, diligent. Along the way, he earned the rewards which come from a job well done and his work was translated into many languages as his books sold all over the world.
What I remember most is that his values were aligned with his work. From time to time, he would talk joyously of the “Divine Afflatus” or moments of the spiritual act of creation. I never heard the words “muse” or “art” until much later in my education, long after my notions of writing were formed.
Currently, there is a movement to democratize the notion of art and make it accessible to everyone. In this way of thinking, everyone can have art, everyone can make art—or so the idea goes.
What is “art,” though? One definition is that art is: “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”
But how can we all simultaneously make something of more than “ordinary significance?”
Art is truly a loaded word, now molded to modern-day inclusiveness. What was once kitsch is now called art, yet we all know there is more art in some things than in others. The word art is flattering, but is it accurate?
If you follow the world of art, you know that real art is something of elevated status, deemed to have value by informed people. It’s a fair system, one not designed to exclude as much as to guide us in preserving the best of our culture. This curation is no less a skilled profession than engineering or medicine. Perhaps, if art could kill us, it would be licensed and regulated thoroughly. As it stands today, anyone can say something is art.
Real artists and art critics attempt to produce and curate items to stand the test of time. In terms of literary arts, it’s easy for a book to be relevant only to fall into total obscurity in decades that follow. If you have any doubts about this, check out this list of bestsellers from 1915:
- The Turmoil by Booth Tarkington
- A Far Country by Winston Churchill
- Michael O’Halloran by Gene Stratton Porter
- Pollyanna Grows Up by Eleanor H. Porter
- K by Mary Roberts Rinehart
- Jaffery by William J. Locke
- Felix O’Day by F. Hopkinson Smith
- The Harbor by Ernest Poole
- The Lone Star Ranger by Zane Grey
- Angela’s Business by Henry Sydnor Harrison
As is clear, most of what was valued by a general public did not stand that test of time. There is a reason why we still read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Elliott and Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.
So, what do we really do when we have the instinct to create? We craft. In days past, creative folks engaged in craft and, along the way, they sometimes ended up making art. The more people practiced craft, the better they became. It was that simple.
Craft is good. Craft is egalitarian. We can all choose and work at craft.
To bestow the title of “art” on something plays right into what Dr. Carol Dweck calls the Fixed Mindset, a black and white way of thinking which discourages experimentation and adventurous learning. It leads to questions of “If my work is called art, is it always art?” Worse still, it suppresses risk and dampens creativity. There is no verb form for the word art.
Craft is about skill and apprenticeship. Craft is a verb. We craft things, including our writing. We learn by and through our craft. This is analogous to Dweck’s notion of the Growth Mindset and is our far better friend. Anyone can craft because anyone can apply themselves, learn, and grow in skill. Craft is not black or white. Craft is a ongoing, humble, experimental quest.
In reality, art is also the result of a long journey, hours of work, hard choices, weeks of uncertainty. In fact, art and craft make roughly the same journey; it’s just one is associated with MOMA and the Met and the other with Joann’s Fabrics and Hobby Lobby. Art flatters and craft may or may not, yet both are equally meaningful to those engaged in their pursuit.
A final point: artists are known for waiting for the muse to strike them. They are victims of circumstance, subject to their own “creative” weather, dependent on the right moment, the right amount of angst or joy, a velvet divan to rest on–or at least this is the burden culture has assigned to them. As Gertrude Stein put it: “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” Their work product can be stricken by fear, doubt, irregular hours, etc.
Craftsmen are more like Amish workmen and show up day after day with little fanfare and succeed by love of their endeavor or attention to duty or a need to pay the bills. They don’t wait for the muse to strike them. When they need to make rocking chairs, they grab their tools, clamps, and wood glue and get to work. Given a chance, they could, with their solid commitment to daily effort, build the divans that artists rest on.