Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Craftsmanship: Write Like A Carpenter

by CWK

If I had any one piece of advice for a young-wanta-be-writer-me, it would be: write like a carpenter. Recognize that writing is a craft. Recognize that it takes work, diligence, effort, and devotion to be good. Carpenters spend years honing their skills. Then, they spend hours, or even days, on one piece of work. Writers are no different. It ain't that romantic, really. Writing is often romanticized as a "gift" which "comes upon" some people. There may be some truth to that. There are certain people who are naturally good with words. Yet, even gifted writers spend inordinate amounts of time editing, and constantly rereading Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Talk to any good writer you know, and I guarantee you they spend, or have spent, a lot of time in grammars and thesauruses. Why? For the same reason every good carpenter spends lots of time picking out good tools. People who are good at stuff care about the tools.

As Dylan Thomas put it, the writer should, "treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone, to hew, carve, mold, coil, polish, and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, figures of sound."

Now, if writing is craftsmanship, then it follows that writers should be hard workers. We should work hard to improve our skills. We should work hard on each piece of work we produce. We should be exhausted at the end of a day of writing. I think about great athletes, and I'm humbled. How many hours a day, on average, does Lebron James spend on a basketball court? Yet, he's the greatest baller in the world. Doesn't he know how to play basketball? Doesn't he already know how to shoot, dribble, and pass? Of course he does. He also knows that, unless he hones and develops these gifts continually, his previous talent and skill level will fade. Because he is great, he words hard. And, because he works hard, he is great; his hard work is part of his greatness. Year after year after year he words hard. So should we.

One element of hard work I'll mention here -- the hard work of revising. Hard workers are willing to keep at it until it is right. So, we should be willing to re-write, re-vise, re-view. Why not view your first draft as just that: a first draft? The first of many. We seldom produce our best on the first try (think of the first time you rode a bike). 

Jane Austen referred to her work as, "that little bit (two inches wide) of ivory, in which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labor."

"...after much labor." Apparently, she was a hard worker: a carpenter of words.

Finally, it's worth quoting the man who is the most influential sports writer in America. How did Bill Simmons come to write with a unique and captivating style? He worked hard. In his words,

I had written short stories as a little kid, read every book in sight, even finished every Hardy Boys book before I turned ten. But I didn't know how to write. "Breaks of the Game" was the first big-boy book I ever loved. Within a few pages, I came to believe that he wrote the book just for me. I plowed through it in one weekend. A few months later, I read it again. Eventually, I read the book so many times that the spine of the book crumbled, so I bought the paperback version to replace it… Through college and grad school, as I was slowly deciding on a career, I read it every year to remind myself how to write -- how to save words, how to construct a sentence, how to tell someone's life story without relying on quotes, how to make anecdotes come alive. It was my own personal writing seminar. When the paperback suffered a tragic beach accident from an unexpected wave, I bought a third copy at the used books store on Newbury Street for $5.95. Best deal of my life. Every two years, I read that book again to make sure that my writing hasn't slipped too much. Like a golfer visiting his old instructor to check on his swing.

...You make me sound like I’m Tom Vu. But I would say zero percent (of my success came from good timing). I’ve had terrible timing, if anything – I came along about five years too early. If the internet was around in the mid-90′s, my life would have been much easier. As it was, I still had to practically kill myself with the BSG site just to get a break.

And this, from a New York Times article ("Can Bill Simmons Win The Big One?"):

Simmons’s literary persona suggests a slacker, a guy who would like nothing more than to spend his days drinking beer and watching sports. This image, enhanced by his loose, casual prose, is misleading. The real Simmons is hard-working and competitive. His rise to prominence has been punctuated by bouts of restlessness and frustration, even when things looked from the outside to be going his way. He’s still chafing over his publisher’s handling of his 2009 book, “The Book of Basketball,” a No. 1 New York Times best seller.

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