As I cast about for ideas for this month’s essay, I ran into some blank walls and some thoughts that led nowhere. I felt generally uninspired and not much like an accomplished craftsperson. Which reminded me that when I tell people I write articles on craft for Hippocampus, they will sometimes assume I mean that I write about actual crafts—like knitting, crocheting, throwing pots, or making my own beer. Not that there’s anything wrong with these craft activities. And I am a distressed knitter, so that might be a logical guess. But in this context, I am writing about the craft of writing creative nonfiction, which bears little resemblance to those other types of things.
According to my dictionary app, craft is defined as an “art, trade or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill.” And, if used as a verb, we can go with this definition: “to make, or manufacture (an object, objects, product, etc.) with skill and careful attention to detail.” For writers, the manual skill involves what happens when words travel from our brains and imaginations down to our fingers—where we either tap keys on a keyboard, hammer away on a typewriter (old school), or take pen to lined paper (really old school). The skill and attention to detail come into play as we create a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, complete with characters a reader can relate to and/or care about, with enough details and dialogue to make these characters come alive and last in our memories.
So now we know what we’re talking about: something a writer does with skill and attention to detail that does not, under normal circumstances, require glue, glitter, toothpicks, duct tape, or baking soda and vinegar. On the contrary—the cleanup is minimal, and the supplies are simple: something to write, and a place to write it. But here’s what got my attention about this last aspect of writing: a presentation I saw, (thanks to a writer friend who sent me a link) by Sarah Lewis, faculty member at Yale University, School of Art in the MFA program, and author of new book called The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery.
The part of Lewis’s talk that got me thinking had to do with the importance of finding a private place—as she says, “either physical or mental”—to free the imagination. She spoke about creative people, and writers in particular, who have created private domains—“not simply physical spaces, but interior lives, inner worlds, that they held as dear as their networks.” With all the emphasis placed on social networks these days, what Lewis points out is the necessity for creative folks to go in an opposite direction—to establish personal domains—and I don’t mean URLs— for themselves: something that Einstein called his “worldly cloister.” In her research, which partly involved reading many, many profiles of writers over the years, Lewis found some common themes in their creative process. Ray Bradbury, for example, rented an inexpensive room where he wrote. Maya Angelou reported that she “left her house and went to a hotel with a bottle of sherry and a dictionary.” Other writers restricted the company they kept and refused to communicate during certain hours of the day when they were writing. Some of these “personal domains” had nothing to do with physical space at all. Lewis maintains that a personal domain is a way “to look at the space in ourselves, a way to shield ourselves from our own outgrown critics.” In such a place, we’ll be able to fend off those critical, discouraging voices that can keep us from writing the way we want and need to. Ideally, we can all create a personal domain, physical or mental, where we don’t feel we are being critiqued by anyone—not even ourselves!
We talk a lot about voice in writing: what is your voice? Have you found your voice? Does this voice sound genuine for a child or a teenager or an adult? Well, I think you can’t even hear that voice, let alone write in it, if you haven’t been able to slip into that inner world of the personal domain. How and where you create it is up to you, but if you want to work to improve your craft, you owe it to yourself to find and stake out a private space to be creative—where you can tap into that interior life and that inner world where creativity carries the day, and the critical voices are exiled. Whether it’s a corner table at the local café or a small area of the kitchen table, once you determine that it’s yours, let the craft work begin.[boxer set=”nye”]