Why study craft?

1) Madison Smartt Bell states in his book about structure, Narrative Design, that craft guides the unconscious “into harness,” similar to the way musicians study scales or sculptors study anatomy. Once craft becomes reflexive, the unconscious accesses this knowledge automatically, leaving the mind free to play, to create, to make the magic happen.

2) Which leads me to Regina Carter (MacArthur Fellow and world-renowned jazz violinist). At a concert today in San Francisco, she told the audience that she doesn’t like to practice, but she still does so every day. No matter how much talent you have, you must practice. You can’t play jazz, you can’t improvise—if your instrument is not an unconscious extension of your body. And when someone asked Carter how it felt to be a master violinist, she said she never thinks of herself as a master; she remains a student, learning something new every day.

3) Which leads me to Joan Didion. I was struck by a statement she made in her National Book Award winning elegy, The Year of Magical Thinking. She describes how her husband, John Gregory Dunne, was rereading a passage one night from her novel, A Book of Common Prayer, to see how it worked, to understand its mechanics. After finishing the passage he said, “Goddamn, …don’t ever tell me you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.” This declaration is a gift that no one else could give her. And it is one that she earned through years of hard work—through attention to craft. We should all strive to be so skilled—and dare to hope that someone will appreciate the work that makes the magic happen (effortlessly) from page to page.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Why study craft?

  1. Thanks for the great post, Jill! Pulitzer winner Junot Diaz, talking about writing OSCAR WAO, commented that after a writer has lived with a story for about ten years, he can start to “hear its drums.” I always appreciate writers who take time and care with the work before gifting it to their readers, because once it’s out there, it’s hard to take it back.

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