Friday, December 7, 2007

Craft and Process: How to Enjoy Writing

I return to the idea of process so many times in 101, because shifting one's focus from product to process is at the heart of enjoying writing. Over the years, I've gotten used to students saying, "I hate writing," or "I hate English." Given the kind of instruction many have received and the scanty rewards students too often receive for very good, hard work, it's an attitude which is easy to understand. The attitude is only reinforced by the you're-either-good-at-math-and-science-OR-English rhetoric which exists in our society.

The truth is both math and English are the same craft. Once you've moved through the basics and laid a good foundation, both become ways of describing the world and making sense of it. The problem is, it's usually late in high school or in college where math or writing and communication get to be fun, and by this point, most are just ready to be done with both. For me, math didn't make much sense until I hit physics and learned that math can be used to describe and figure out the world. English didn't make much sense until I began to move beyond thinking that the only kind of writing which mattered was the rhetorical situation in which teacher=audience and purpose=grade.

It helped that I grew up among potters and other craftsmen. The model of work I learned wasn't that of getting the right grades to make it up to the next test. I learned early on that one gains a sense of purpose through one's work--one's craft, and the real challenge and satisfaction in the world is in getting better, not in being the best.

A response I wrote this morning to a near perfect student paper explains better what I mean by this connection between paying attention to process, craft, and enjoying one's work. Think of yourself as a craftperson writer, and writing and English become much more fun. Find my response below:

"We share a love of Tolkien. Over the years, as I ran out of his fiction to read, I’ve read his scholarship. If possible, he was an even better scholar of the Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Europe than he was a fiction writer. He’s among a handful of scholars, including CS Lewis and B. Russell, who I can read for fun. The kind of precision he showed in coming up with the languages for his fiction is present in all of his writing, and it's always a joy to read the writing of one who loved the craft as did Tolkien. (And, yes, I am an English geek.)"

In any event, I’m sorry your Rivendell didn’t survive, I would have enjoyed taking a walk-through, and I know how much it hurts to loose a creation which was so right and into which you put so much work. If it’s any help, you share the experience with a number of very good writers. Tennyson once left an entire book of poetry—the only copy he had—in a cab, and Hemingway once left a novel and his best typewriter on a train. In fact, I’ve thought about writing some science fiction in which the main character is a part of a team of time travelers who go back to recover such lost manuscripts. Among the list of lost manuscripts includes those by the likes of Aristotle and Socrates. "

"Now on to more important matters, namely, your writing. You’re a very good writer, much better than all but the top five percent or so of folks entering college. You have a good sense of both sentence and clause boundaries. You understand paragraphing and how to organize your documents in a way which makes sense to the reader. You also have the sense, which very few seasoned writers have, to provide enough information without providing too much. The upshot? I have very little I can tell you to improve this piece, and I will gladly give it an 'A.'"

"As you review this piece, try to figure out all the things you’ve done to make the text so successful, and I’d like to encourage you to think again about the process you used to create Rivendell. How did you learn to do the various tasks involved? What specific steps did you repeat over-and-over again? How did you organize your research? "

"The notion of Kaizen, making the processes you use more effective through continuous small improvements, as it applies to writing involves knowing how *you* create in the same detail as you know how you created Rivendell. To be an efficient writer as well as a good one, you’ve got to get to the point where you know the processes involved in writing. "

"I’d encourage you to look at the processes you used in creating your Rivendell and to find one aspect of a process to change. Let this one change be the start of a lifetime of learning and refining your knowledge of how to work more effectively. Try to identify the change you could make which would have the most impact either on the final product or on saving you work. Implement this change, and after you’ve used the new process, review again. This kind of continuous attention to the tools and processes you use in your craft pays off in having a flexible set of strategies you can use to create and which you can draw on to as you run into loggerheads as you work. With a nuanced understanding of how you work and the repertoire on which you have to draw, you can move around the problems which arise with alacrity. This ability to encounter problems and move around them with the same ease with which you normally create is the measure of a master craftsperson. Spend some time watching an old time craftsperson at work to get a handle on what I mean by an ease and alacrity with how one can work. Folks who have been at their trade for years are a joy to watch as they work. They move with the same practiced ease as an Olympic athlete, and you can find them around you every day. More importantly, you can become such a worker."

"The other main advantage to such an approach to one’s work is that one soon finds that there is always a way to make one’s process better. In fact, you begin to take a lot of pride in your knowledge of how best to work. As your work flows, you know you’re producing a good, solid, beautiful, and useful product. At this point you become a master of your craft."

"What does all this have to do with writing? Writing is a craft. As with most crafts, it's not talent which allows one to create, it's knowledge of the processes, techniques, and tricks involved in the work of creation. Armed with such knowledge and a willingness and opportunity to practice, and anyone can find joy in the creation of the beautiful and useful. Finally, one of the true joys of seeing work as craft is the fact that one is rarely bored with the work. Why? Because you know you always have something you can refine, a new technique to learn and tryout, and new knowledge of the materials, tools, and tricks of your trade. You can get lost in the rhythms of the work itself instead of having to do the work to make the grade."

"As always, write me at with questions,"


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