“I did not begin with craft, I began with strong feelings and worked toward craft.” – Dorothy Allison.
People sometimes come to my classes or consult with me hoping to learn craft. They want to write perfect essays, develop strong characters and create interesting plots. But that is not what I like to teach. Books, classes, workshops and critique groups can help them with these fine points. My interest lies in emotion – the heat of feeling and the charge of the written word. Gut sensations excite me – things that draw us into the moment.
For me, craft has been an afterthought. Although I studied writing in college, what I learned there did not help me write strong prose. As an attorney, I spent many years writing highly structured legal documents that lacked any semblance of heart and soul. It wasn’t until I read and followed the suggestions of author Natalie Goldberg in her book “Writing Down the Bones” that I found passion in my writing. I took seriously Goldberg’s admonition to just do writing practice for two years. I started with the topic “tuna fish” and let my mind wander through the Sahara Desert past dinosaurs and out to find the huge pine tree at my parents’ farm. I trusted my gut. If I encountered a teacher or began reading a book that made me feel constricted, I stopped and went back to pure writing practice. I had spent too many years not writing at all out of sheer terror to ever again let myself be afraid of the pen. Eight years of following my wandering mind with my pen and rereading my notebooks to find themes and sounds that struck a chord helped me find my voice.
I am not suggesting that craft is unimportant. Structure is what gives a piece of work the skeleton on which to hang emotion. If I write a story that is simply a vituperative rant of my personal opinions, no one is going to want to read it. Likewise if I write a technically correct story with character development, a beautiful plot, and brilliant scenery which lacks passion, I have only written a gutless wonder. No one is going to want to read that either. Good writing must combine both elements – the heart and the mind.
If like me, you are spending years migrating around the images your mind is throwing at you and you’ve convinced yourself you’re getting no where, don’t despair. You are just finding your voice. If, by contrast, you know how to write the perfect story, but the things you write feel flat or untrue, give up craft for awhile. Instead, follow your heart . It will take you to a red hot flame. From there you can work your way back home.
Nita (he gives me fever . . . ) Sweeney
(c)2005 by Nita Sweeney