Is writing an art or a craft? In day to day practice I usually approach it as a craft. I have a certain amount of work to accomplish, and I must accomplish that work even if I’m not particularly inspired, even if I’m feeling under the weather, even if the work is more reportage than imaginative. But I understand that what attracted me to writing in the first place is the artistic heart of it. This is one reason why I look forward to the times when I can write fiction. This is not to say that nonfiction can’t be art, but most of the nonfiction I do is focused on the reporting of facts. The key requirement is clarity, not artistic flourish. The old adage of “kill your darlings” is more important in nonfiction than fiction, I think, because metaphors and other beautiful turns of phrase may serve to obfuscate facts.
For me, however, fiction is about more than just a good story. I can read a book or story that is plainly written but in which the prose doesn’t sing, as long as the plotline keeps me wondering what happens next. But, the works that I remember are those in which the words and sentences are infused with beauty as well as functionality. Consider:
“The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color of torn plums, and a light rain had started to fall…” James Lee Burke, The Neon Rain.
“Johnny James was sitting on the front porch, sipping from a glass of gasoline in the December heat, when the doomscreamer came.” Robert R. McCammon, “Something Passed By.”
“That country where the hills are fog, and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.” Ray Bradbury, “The October Country.”
“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.” John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.
“Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves.” Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian.
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms.
The beauty of these lines compel me. There is meaning “in” the words, and also “behind” the words. I “feel” things in these pieces that go beyond the vocabulary and grammar. Therein lies the art. To do more than just tell a story. To do more than just move the reader from one scene to the next. That’s what I hope to do every time I sit to write a story, what I hope to do and too often fail. Art is a goal that is always difficult to achieve. But it is a goal that is worth the effort.