The Mark Blog

Avoid The Nipple


Photo credit: Corbis

I feel like I’m in school again. It’s not a bad feeling, though my assignment this week was to write an essay, which was never my forte (hence the reason I'm a fiction writer). Actually it’s called an annotation, a short piece examining the craft of story by a particular writer. I've been assigned a story by Charles D’Ambrosio. The funny part is that another essay I was assigned to read, Zadie Smith’s “Fail Better,” is partially about how craft alone does not lead to great writing. Which is good for me, because sometimes… I forget what 'craft' even means.

In writing, anyway. Usually the word makes me think of arts n’ crafts, you know, like basket weaving or necklace-beading. I'm not sure how the term ended up in literary circles, when in a way the “art” of writing may have been more appropriate (though maybe more pretentious-sounding).

I'm not sure that a writer should really be thinking about craft the way a craftsman, like a carpenter, does. And this is precisely what Zadie Smith argues in her essay, when she calls writing, “The craft that defies craftsmanship.” Yes, you can hone your skills in the craft of writing and get a good story onto the page, using all the advanced techniques that make up decent, readable, digestible writing (see… well, probably a lot of MFA students, I’m guessing). But good just ain’t good enough. So what is the missing link between great craft and great art?

Zadie says it’s the writer. Not the writing of the writer, but what we might call the soul of the writer.

Style, she says, is not found only in the form of word choices and sentence structure, but in the “particular human consciousness” that the work exudes. And how does the writer achieve this? By writing, and living, as truthfully as possibly. Or, put another way, by finding one's true voice.

Writing workshops, MFA programs, and literary fellowships alone won't work. A writer's truth comes from asking questions, exploring, challenging, provoking, prodding, peeking, penetrating the surface of things. It comes from a life that’s lived not just on the page, but off, and by blurring the distinction between the two. Writing should be life, and vice versa.

At least that's what I say. Zadie may not go this far.

You can go about this in various ways. Yes, you can take off on the road and write about all your adventures, or become a prostitute or a junkie or a prosecutor, and then write all about those worlds. Or you can channel your various experiences into the tale of a 14-year-old who’s abducted by crazy cultists. You don’t have to have been the 14-year-old (or the cultists for that matter), but something from the story must resonate with some part of your life—or why bother, right?

Another way to think about this is to consider the clichéd, as Anthony Doerr does in this podcast. Doerr compares the comfort of using cliché to the comfort of the womb. To me, the image of suckling a mother’s breast is also a fitting comparison. In Zadie’s words: “it’s a shop-soiled…shortcut. You have re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange. It is an aesthetic and ethical failure.” Yes!

But why? Because clichés are inauthentic and do not express the particular, intimate nature of the writer’s true self. They crush the reader under the weight of familiarity. And, occasionally, they sell a million copies (see: The DaVinci Code).

Of course, most writers aren’t in it for the money, because there's rarely much to be had. We’re in it to recover the sensation of life, to communicate it not as it’s known generally, but as we perceive it. To be cliché for a moment, writing is about the journey, not the destination, and the only way to keep the journey going is to extend the horizon, keep it just out of reach. How do we do this? By casting our common stories in new and unfamiliar lights, rearranging them, experimenting, playing, and, yes, often failing.

In short, art asks questions. We’ll leave it to science to provide the answers.