Monday, November 12, 2007

Learning the Craft

Here's a writing practice I did last year but it feels relevant even now.

Writing classes are a way to learn craft. At first I agreed with this. It seems obvious. You take a fiction class and learn the craft. But really it isn't the class that teaches you craft or even the teacher. It is through writing story after story that you learn craft. A class may set up the right parameters for you to produce these stories but you teach yourself craft through each finished story.

Ron Carlson says that your first twenty stories are your apprenticeship. I think he even added your first twenty stories that aren't written for a class. Stories that you write on your own because you need to, not because a teacher is expecting it from you. That is one of the hardest things to learn. Nobody really cares if I write another word ever again. Oh, maybe my best friend who dreams of going on a book tour with me as my manager. But really, nobody really cares. So I have to care. I have to care enough to write a story for myself. not for a teacher. Not for a class. Not for a grade but because I can't not write this story. Then I need to do it again. And again.

Classes are good for company. For companionship on this lonely road we've chosen. But you don't need them to teach you craft. I've often toyed with the idea of entering a low residency MFA program. But I need to use that money for my daughters' college, not for me. And I don't need a degree to write. I don't need a group of twenty somethings picking apart my work until it becomes a bland piece of tofu mfa workshopped story. That's harsh. Not all mfa programs do that. But that is the downside. That is the risk.

All I need to learn the craft of writing is to write and all of the teachers I need are on my bookshelves and the shelves of libraries and bookstores. Writing and reading. Reading and writing. That's the master class we all need. Even an mfa program ends eventually and then you are out there, all alone, once again nobody caring if you write another word and it's all up to you. You do it because you have to. I do it because I have to. I try to do it everyday. It's easier to keep a rocket up in space than it is to relaunch it over and over again. Too much wasted energy. And not only do I have to write but I have to finish what I write. Finish what I start. A bunch of half-assed, half- finished stories won't teach me much of anything. I need to see the completed arc of the story. Or see that there is no arc to my story. I need to write it through to the end to see what I have. To learn what I don't have. To learn what I need. To learn the craft.

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