Thursday, May 14, 2009

Developing Your Craft

Developing Your Craft
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman

Recently, a student asked me, “What do I have to do to develop my ‘craft’?”

Alas, a common problem I see among many beginning writers is that desire for a quick fix. They believe that their writing will be perfect if they:

Master the rules of grammar, spelling, and syntax
Remove all the adverbs
Replace the “to be” verbs such as “was” or “seems”
Take a class or workshop, or
Find the perfect editor

What they don’t understand is that good writing is first and foremost an art form, and like any art form, you must master the craft if you want your work to be great—a process that can take a lifetime. Developing your craft requires careful study, patience, practice, and a love affair with language and the written word.

Last year, I had the pleasure of attending an art exhibit titled “Masters Revisited,” a display of eleven well-known French artists. Many of these works were paintings and sculptures intended only for the artist to see. They were the practice pieces, the experiments, and the failures. The exhibit was fascinating to me because it provided insight into the artists’ creative techniques, and it made me think about how we, as writers, can refine our own craft. Some thoughts to ponder about the development of the writing craft:

Practice. From the fall of 1890 to the spring of 1891, Claude Monet created twenty-five paintings of haystacks. He painted essentially the same scene again and again, under different light conditions and in different types of weather. You can apply the same method to your writing. Does writing believable dialogue give you trouble? Then try an exercise in which you write a different conversation every day with the same characters. Write a conversation in which they argue, another one where they forgive each other, and another conversation where they are lying to each other, etc. As you do this, you will begin to master the nuances of dialogue and uncover the complexities of your characters’ relationship with each other.

Another form of practice comes from revision and re-writing. Many of my short stories are rewritten at least twenty times before I feel that they are finished. One story that has been rewritten close to fifty times has won several major prizes. In that story, I have taken out scenes, added scenes, added characters, removed characters, and changed the ending. The final version of that short story has earned over a thousand dollars in awards.

Experiment. Henri Matisse was fascinated with photography and often took pictures of scenes he planned to paint. In his paintings, he rearranged the composition and changed the positions of his models. The photographs were black-and-white, but he sometimes painted the same scene several times, using different colors in each version, seeking out the perfect juxtaposition of color and composition. You can experiment with your prose by changing the point of view, writing in a different tense, or rearranging the sequence of events.

I have a short story that was originally written from a mother’s point of view. After receiving some excellent critiques, I decided to write it from two alternating points of view: the mother and her daughter. The final version of that story is now written in the omniscient point of view so that we know how the whole family perceives the situation, resulting in a work that is filled with tension and suspense.

Copy. Edward Degas could not afford to study with the master painters of his time, so he spent hours in the Louvre painstakingly copying the work of other famous artists. He believed that he could learn their secrets by imitating their style. No, I’m not advocating plagiarism, but I am encouraging you to emulate great writers.

Pick a passage from an author you particularly admire and copy that excerpt exactly word for word. As you do this, ask yourself some questions about that scene: Why did the author choose this word and not another? Why is there dialogue here rather than narration? Why didn’t the author describe what the character looked like? How does the author get the characters across the room so quickly? When you can comprehend the choices a brilliant artist makes, it will help you to make better choices for your own work.

Seek Failure. As writers, our lives are full of rejection, so why should we seek failure? In the final years of his life Degas was losing his sight, and he turned from painting to sculpture. He spent hours and hours alone in his studio, creating small wax or clay models of sculptures he hoped to cast in bronze. If he could not “feel the life” under his fingers, he destroyed the models and started over. Your unpublished stories and your unfinished novels are your teachers. You can learn more from your mistakes than you can from any lecture or any book because you have experienced the process.

Finally, you should remember that your “failures” are not a wasted effort. The greatest risks offer the greatest gain, and within every work of writing, there is usually a hidden gem. It may be no more than a beautiful description or some clever wordplay, but it’s there, waiting for you to use your craft to turn it into something wonderful and complete.

Happy writing!

Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning writer whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in numerous magazines, newsletters, and anthologies. The recipient of artistic grants from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Creative Capital Foundation, she is currently studying for her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Phoenix and teaches writing workshops and classes in the metro area.

Visit Ms. Gassman at her Web site:
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