Friday, October 1, 2010

What is writing art?

In my time spent studying writing, thinking about writing, and actually putting words down, I have often come across what seems to be a complex conundrum: what qualities must a work possess to be “art?” Is Harry Potter less artistic than, say, Pride and Prejudice? And why? What is this quality that separates them, and how is it defined? Is inspired work better than plotted work? Is it better not to outline, or to write everything out?

When I wrote my novella, I noticed that in the beginning I wrote with a richness that slowly evaporated as the story went on. Richness is a vague word, so I will define it as imagery without sacrificing detail, (so, not imagery for the sake of it); writing to inspire the sense, writing to intimately involve the reader. As I went on, I lost this effortless quality that had been with me in the very beginning. There were moments I had it, but it seemed to peter out.

Sounds a lot like inspiration, right? I like to define inspiration in terms of what it feels like to read. As readers, we see a story really as limitless possibilities that simply unfold in a particular way because of the writer's decisions.

I am a musician. I've played the flute for about 10 years, and I am currently learning the guitar. Writers use metaphors so here is mine. When you play an instrument, there are of course a lot of things to master, but the main aspect—the quality which determines your skill more than others—is being to look at a note and know instantly what you need to do in order to produce that note. So, with guitar, you have to learn the chords so that when you want to play something you can switch between them with relative ease and speed.

It seems to me that writing with “richness” or “inspiration” (or this vague quality that seems quite difficult to define) should be something you can learn. It should be something you can practice, that you can read about, that you learn! Yet, the best we get in terms of instruction are vague allusions to filmatic qualities that we are told to master.

When I finished my novella I also felt embarrassed by it. The title is “Dragon Boy,” and it's a relatively silly adventure story. I don't think people would consider it art. And I think this is what bothers me. Not that I was unable to concoct a masterpiece (I'm not that vain... yet), but that is some mysterious line in the sand and everything a person writes falls on either side. I am very tempted to say the distinction is between story and art, but great stories have been written artistically. My question is, how?

I think that even though a writer should avoid writing the way he or she reads (because not making any choices about the direction of your work ironically makes the decision for you: you end up cornered and frustrated) but, at the same time, the experience of reading absolutely must come with the writer when approaching the work. This is the quality that must be learnt: conveying the scene in a way which opens the reader's the senses, both intellectually and emotionally, in a way which forwards the story, while maintaining a consciousness of the overall course and destination of the story.

Because if the writer doesn't know where the story is going, then who does?


Meredith said...

(The last question is semi-taken from Syd Field's book on Screenwriting, he makes the point there that the writer must make decisions and I quite like that).

Zomzara said...

Roland Barthes- Death of the Author

You are powerless as a writer. All the power is with the reader. It doesn't matter what you put into your text, the reader will come to it with a totally different set of ideas and change it to fit within their own framework. It doesn't matter if the writer doesn't know where his story is going because the reader will ultimately guide it where they want it to go.

I'm of the opinion that the less the writer thinks, the better. Let the language live and don't get in its way. That's why I think all writers would do well to engage with automatic writing, especially in the early stages of their career and projects.

"The essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the "passions" or "tastes" of the writer; "a text's unity lies not in its origins," or its creator, "but in its destination," or its audience."

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