Is My Writing Art or Craft?

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.

Me?

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.

DSC_0056
I call this art

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
  • 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.

Looks like craft to me

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.

22 thoughts on “Is My Writing Art or Craft?

  1. I think on some level it’s hubris to wade into the world of creation and start separating out, “This is Art,” “This is not Art.” (Or even the same without the cap A.) Who can say what will stand the test of time? Do we, looking and evaluating from today, stand at the end of time where final judgment can be made? How universal are those judgments? In a sense, all we create for aesthetic reasons—whatever they are—must be art. The painting. The tail fin on a Cadillac. The flair on the Q in the Caslon typeface. The 20,000-word poem. The spray-painted glyph on the subway car. Keith Haring was a vandal … until he was deemed an artist. But was it not art before? The Devonian cave paintings artist may have been mocked and ridiculed back then, or created purely for political reasons (to impress upon people the great feats of a leader), but now we ooh and aah and nod our heads, “This is art.” And the Elizabethan painter who never found much success perhaps influenced another painter. What mediocrity may have inspired Rodin or Da Vinci or Chaucer or Mozart?

    1. Laura, you’re missing my point. This piece is about how things are labeled and how those labels impact people. Some people are not motivated by use of the word art in describing their work. I am one of those people. If you notice the title of this piece is Is My Writing Art or Craft. It is a personal reflection on a problem at large, that some people write for reasons other than their personal recognition. Hope this clears it up.

      1. Apparently my writing skills failed me here. I do not disagree with your comment. I was attempting to state my view that what people call “art” varies over time, distance, cultures. In particular, I was responding to, “Real artists and art critics attempt to produce and curate items to stand the test of time,” which was followed by a list. I would question the definition of “artists” by intention.

        I would argue that the same things are true for craft. “Craft” may have a meaning in our culture, referring to embroidery and quilting, but again I’d say that’s an arbitrary distinction, and cannot be pinned down by intention or longevity or cultural relevance an arbitrary time period later.

        I view craft much as what I think you’re saying: a discipline building upon practiced skills and learned insights of those who came before. I would also define art the same way. But I’m a contrary sort at times.

        So how shall we label these things? It’s tough. For example, I’d say Mississippi blues are art, and they are craft. I doubt many arbiters of either term at the time would have granted it to the practitioners.

      2. Ah, I see the distance between us is not that great. If you’ll notice, I avoided a specific discussion of my views on how to categorize each. For creatives, it all depends on what motivates creation. Thanks for reading.

      3. I promise I will NEVER be your arbiter. Love your writing, whether it be art or craft. Glad the keeper let you free range for awhile. Thanks for reading and commenting too.

  2. I don’t think Tonia is setting herself up as the arbiter of art here. I think she’s suggesting another of many ways to view what we, the daily writers, do. I appreciate the questions being asked in this piece, which seems a refreshing way to look at the daily practice of writing–the practice of a craft. I’m listening to a book called The Practicing Mind, which explores a process orientation as opposed to a product focus. I know too many people who are stalled by the daunting suggestion that they must daily Create Art, instead of the more realistic and encouraging notion that we are practicing and learning through the practice. If my students believe they have to produce great things every time out, they wouldn’t ever do anything. By viewing their learning as craft, through a lens of practice, they are willing to take risks, willing to try and fail, willing to work themselves to a level of skill at which they may be capable of producing art. Just my first thoughts here.

    1. I must get The Practicing Mind and yes, if I had to deal with the expectation of creating art, I’d seize up like your students and never write a thing. You are right, I am no arbiter of art. It goes against my middle kid upbringing to make the rules for everyone much less enforce them. Glad you liked the questions in the piece. I’d hoped they would be helpful to those of us who motivate more on process than on end results. Thanks for reading and commenting too.

  3. The key question–is MY writing art or craft–is a good one. For me, it’s craft, definitely. In the first place, I have no illusions about making a great living doing this (though, perhaps that makes it art). I started writing as a means to an end–to try and communicate with my niece–and it took off from there. I have learned I am as capable of writing well, as I am of not writing at all. I seldom look at creating a masterpiece, but I do look at mastering a piece. For example, can I invoke emotion in a piece without telling someone how to feel? Can I do it without wrenching myself to bits? Each small focus is a personal triumph for me, and if someone else appreciates it, then I am humbled and often surprised by that. So for me, it’s craft.

    1. So well stated Crystal. I love what you say about mastering a piece and, also, about the matter of being humbled and surprised when you have impact. I love what you do in your writing in terms of creating emotion. You have a gift for vivid, honest writing. Thanks for reading and commenting too.

      1. You have a gift as well, Tonia, for tackling complex issues, and breaking them down to the core issues. I love your work, and your dedication to both the art and the craft.

  4. As a crafter who occasionally frequents JoAnn Fabrics and several local yarn shops, I can state without a doubt I am not an artist. I practice, and work, and create. I may create pieces worthy of admiration, but I would not call my end product art. The same applies to my writing. I practice daily, and sometimes produce quality. But I would still call it craft.

    1. Dee, craft is glorious. In fact, for a long time, women were unable to participate in the fine arts and all their artistic creations were lumped into the category of “craft.” I love making all kinds of things (especially, with wood and metal) and same as you, would not call my end products art. The joy of creation interests me most, that and the ongoing discipline of facing the fear of exposure, rejection, and the unknown unleashed by creation. Thanks for reading and commenting too.

  5. I love this post and the conversation it started. My writing is craft. Sometimes, when the right words come in just the right order, it might feel like art, but it is craft and the result of studying the craft. Studying the craft. I tend to find that writers who call it art are novices, those who are just starting and don’t necessarily understand yet that knowing how to type does not make one an artist (or even good at the craft). Other arts, such as painting, are more difficult for me to address. Elephants make paintings that sell, Ikea prints are shown in a gallery alongside the masters and experts are confused. E.L. James published badly written novels that were a huge success. So are these things art? I have no idea. Perhaps it’s always in the eye of the beholder – I can read your words or look at your painting and call it art if I feel that is true. And others can do the same when reading my words, although I think they’re more likely to say I should continue the study of my craft.

    1. Debbie, I think you are right that some of this is in the eye of beholder and I’m not about to spoil anyone’s appreciation of their velvet Elvis painting collection. To some degree, the two will always blur as they always have. I like the word craft because it keeps me grounded. When I say I’m making art, I feel like I’m trying to make my friends laugh! Language is funny, imprecise and debatable. I hope E.L. James was just making money and not art. Thanks for reading and commenting too.

  6. I love the questions this post has raised within my own mind. Most days I struggle even to regard my practice as craft. It feels too much like tripping over my own size 9s. Having said that, the fact that I keep showing up, keep working at my apprenticeship, keep pushing the boundaries of what I think I can do tells me that the more I do this, the more likely I am to ascend to the level of craftsman. Love the discussion and the engagement!

    1. Carryl, you’ve hung in there and are well on your way to master craftswoman. That part about pushing the boundaries seems endless sometimes. I guess that is why some of the nicest people I;ve known are writers–it is not work for the faint of heart. Thanks for reading and commenting too.

  7. They say that if you step into quicksand, any movement you make will only hasten your demise. For all your struggles, the sand will swallow you whole. I really stepped in it here, and at the risk of sinking only further faster, I feel I must apologize and attempt to reframe what I so blithely posted above.

    First of all, I am sorry for giving the impression that you were somehow setting yourself up as an arbiter of art or anything of the sort. What happened was I got all caught up in the Art vs. Craft dichotomy as an abstract concept and spun off on my own nerdy tangent, not really responding to your post directly at all, which was inconsiderate and unfair. I had no intention of hijacking the discussion, but I managed to unthinkingly do it anyway. Mea culpa.

    To me, on a personal level, speaking as creator to creator, how the terms are used by others can be distractions. But you are so right, how we think of it ourselves is so important. I, too, am leery of the person who says, “I am an artist. I create art. I do art. I art stuff.” That’s nice, dude. How’s that working out for you? On the other hand, I cast a sad panda face at creators who say, “I just crank out what the public wants,” like they’re making crackers or bicycle reflectors.

    For me, it’s a combination at heart of my own work. For one thing, I call it “my work,” which reflects the nature that it is the product of craft. It’s a practice, a discipline, an exploration and mastering of ability and lore, this writing work. Anyone claiming the integrity of being an Artist-with-a-capital-A who lacks craft is bound to be disappointed, for it’s the craft that enables and empowers the creator to communicate her intention (be it a message, an experience, a question, whatever) to the audience. To take it to the extreme: the genius illiterate is not going to write The Great American Novel.

    But I also see an element of art in the work by way of intention, because there’s a seriousness there, not in staking any claims on greatness or importance, but rather in terms of integrity of intention. There’s craft in a Coke commercial, but it’s hard to view it as art—at least not until it’s decades old and divorced from the current zeitgeist and can be admired for things beyond spikes in sales. (And that’s not to say I am against writing “mere entertainments,” for I would consider them as having an integrity of intention as well.)

    Now that the quicksand is up to my neck, I share an anecdote that has been making the rounds on the facetweets lately. I paraphrase: A pottery student decided to divide her class into two groups, each with their own challenge for the semester. The first group was, with the luxury of time of the entire semester, to study and research and plan the perfect pot, and create one. What an advantage, to have all that time to be able to really delve into the challenge! The other group was tasked with creating as many pots as possible throughout the semester. At the end of the term, who made the better pot? The second group, who had been practicing their craft all this time. All the artful planning of the first group could not compete with the advantage of practice and experience.

    We met through My 500 Words, a group that celebrates the practice of writing. It’s a celebration I cherish. And ours is a friendship I cherish.

    **waves while sinking below the quicksand surface**

    1. Quicksand is a great analogy for everything about writing–don’t struggle against what doesn’t work or you’ll sink faster. Glad to see another person who enjoys art as much as I do. Endlessly interesting stuff. Your answer on this is worthy of its own blog post and contributes much to the dialogue. Like you (as I am now on my 507th day of daily writing) I make lots of pots in my living. In a way (like a physical therapist) I try to build muscle and support bone–while breaking down the adhesions that sit below the scars. I just make pots and try to throw each one a little better than the last–or not. The routine of the craft is soothing to me. Thanks for reading and for you comments about my writing. I hear the demons yowling in the distance. Apparently, one has fallen in that quicksand : )

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