Writing is craft

Assumptions about writing that hinder the writing process.
Part I in a series.

At its core, the resistance I meet as a writing teacher is the same wherever I teach: it is fear of the unknown. This fear is perfectly logical and rational. Generally, the people that I meet have not had any coherent instruction in writing. And neither have I.

In the Netherlands, as well as in other European countries, I think we often do not learn to write. We learn, instead, to produce text that is accepted by the club or society we belong to. To produce text that conforms to certain rules, spoken and unspoken. Use these words; don’t use these words. Be brief; be expansive. Be approachable; be distant.

Where explicit instruction is absent, we learn by copying what other people do. That is valuable exercise: you can learn a lot by exploring the structure and style of other people’s texts. But it is just a beginning. Writing can be so much more, if you let it.

Another element in the resistance I meet as a writing teacher, is the assumption that writing is d.i.f.f.i.c.u.l.t. Something that only a select group of people are truly capable of. This is one of those convictions that we can absorb unknowingly, from the world around us. We live in a time and place where words are revered and are valued higher than craft. And this is a problem for me as a teacher. Because writing is to a large extent about craft, not about the ‘right’ words. It can be hard to convince my students of that.

image: Rembrandt, Row of trees in an open field, pen and bistre, c. 1636. Collection Gemäldegalerie Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna.

write like you draw

So I tell my students this: writing is comparable to drawing. Words make sentences; lines make shapes. You highlight, you shade, you fill parts out and leave parts empty. You choose certain materials for a certain feel.

To become a better draughtsman, you have to put in the hours, drawing whatever, whenever, however. You can do this on your own, but a good drawing teacher will show you shortcuts, give you new ideas. They will be able to break down the seemingly effortless sketches of great masters into techniques, that you can practice. You may not become Rembrandt in one go, or ever. But studying what he did, can be a deeply meaningful undertaking.

To become a better draughtsman, you draw and draw and draw. And a good teacher will ease the way. Help you find the drawing that is yours. A drawing teacher who is not attuned to your needs might dishearten you (ask me how I know). And although most children enjoy drawing, many adults somehow acquire the conviction that they cannot draw (anymore), that ‘drawing is not for me’.

image: Sylvia Fein, progression of her daughter’s drawing of horses. From Fein’s seminal book ‘Heidi’s horse’. More on this website.

To become a better writer, you write and write and write. And a good teacher will ease the way. Help you to find the writing that is yours.

Part II here.

main image: Blackwork embroidery, detail. British, c. 1590. Linen embroidered with silk and silver-wrapped threads. Collection Metropolitan Museum, New York.