Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Learning the Craft

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 22, 2015

If you and I want to be taken seriously as writers, it goes without saying that we have to study the craft. However we do it (read Aristotle, enroll in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, study McKee and Coyne and Stephen King), we must learn the timeless principles of storytelling with the same thoroughness that a brain surgeon applies (we hope) before he starts drilling into our skulls.

Jackson Pollock. That's the fun of it, isn't it?

That’s the craft.

But there’s another, even more important element to this enterprise.

Our craft.

What I mean by “our craft” are those stylistic and storytelling instincts that are unique to you and me alone and that constitute our voice.

Hemingway. Faulkner. Chekhov. Toni Morrison. Tom Wolfe. Each of their styles is unique. Each possesses a perspective that is his or hers alone, and each has a way of telling a story that is unmistakable, one of a kind.

What’s your style? Can you define your voice? Can we pick a sentence out of something you wrote and say of it, “This could only have been written by you?”

If you and I want to take ourselves seriously as writers, we have to ask ourselves not just, “Am I studying the craft?” but “Am I studying my craft?”

I’ve written before in this space about my friend Paul and his struggles coming to grips with his gifts as a writer.

Right out of the gate, Paul had a distinct voice and a strong instinctive style.

1. His characters were dark. Very dark.

2. They were violent. Beyond-Tarantino violent.

3. Paul had no patience with “backstory.” You know the scene(s) that seems to be required in every novel or movie, where the protagonist reveals (or another device is employed to reveal) the “reason why” she or he does what they do? Paul’s instinct has also been to blow those scenes off. He doesn’t care why people do what they do. Or rather, he believes that the untold answer is more powerful than the told.

4. He hates “private moments.” These are scenes (often without dialogue) when the character is alone or in a non-public venue and, by some act or gesture that he or she believes no other human will witness, reveals some key aspect of their character. An estranged lover, for example, may call up on her Smartphone a saved text from her lost love, revealing by this act that she still cares.

Paul hates those moments too. He will never give you one.

5. He refuses to show any of his characters except in their in-action personas.

6. He refuses to “explain” or “ground” any of his characters’ actions.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Paul has instincts as a writer. These instincts are not the craft. But they’re his craft.

If Paul is going to realize his potential as a writer, he has to master both.

(These instincts may be wrong, by the way. They may be crazy or misguided or just plain dumb. But they also may be the seeds of a unique and unforgettable voice.)

Each of us has a natural style, just as Charles Bukowski did, or Eudora Welty or Hunter Thompson or Jean Rhys. Each of us has a view of life that’s ours alone—and an ear for dialogue and a style of storytelling that belongs to no one but us. Again, that’s not the craft. It’s our craft.

We have to study this. We can’t abdicate or dismiss this component of the writer’s art by saying we’ll do it by instinct, we’ll “know it when we see it.”

We have to become fully conscious of our strengths and our natural style and our instinctive point of view. Like Bob Dylan’s singing voice or Ridley Scott’s sense of visual composition. We have to ask ourselves (and be able to answer): “Does this work? Is it coming from my truest creative heart? Is it me?”

Do you like your body? Do you approve of your face? Same thing with our artistic identities. We can’t change them. They’re what we were issued at the factory. But we can express them. We can refine them. We can make them pop and sing.

That’s the fun of it, isn’t it?

What does your voice sound like? What does a sentence written by you look like? It can take years to learn this. And it’s always changing. Your Muse leads you forward. You’re discovering who you are as you go.

To pursue an art, any art, is to embark on a journey of self-discovery. That’s not a cliche. It’s the reason for the whole trip.

The stories I’ve written, I never knew I had them in me before they came out. I discovered who I was by what I wrote. It was only after those characters and those narratives appeared that I realized they were a part of me. They were me.

To look at a sentence on the page and be able to say, “That’s my voice,” is a hell of a thing. It takes decades and it’s worth decades.

That’s not learning the craft. But it’s learning our craft.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

22 Responses to “Learning the Craft”

  1. Mary Doyle
    July 22, 2015 at 6:13 am

    “It takes decades and it’s worth decades.” That says it all – I really, really needed this reminder, and I’ll keep it close to me for those days when discouragement sets in and every word I write feels clunky and voiceless. Thanks for an inspiring post, and for offering renewal to us out in here the trenches every Wednesday!

  2. July 22, 2015 at 6:23 am

    LOVE THIS:
    To look at a sentence on the page and be able to say, “That’s my voice,” is a hell of a thing. It takes decades and it’s worth decades.

    That’s not learning the craft. But it’s learning our craft.

  3. July 22, 2015 at 6:29 am

    Steven, as you well know, knowing ourselves is the foundation stone of knowing pretty much everything else in this life. It’s certainly a prerequisite for knowing our characters and our readers. This whole idea is counter-intuitive to many, especially people who are averse to self-inquiry and never want to go there… This is a terrific post on a big, important topic.

  4. July 22, 2015 at 6:48 am

    I agree that this is our “voice” as a writer. We should cultivate a certain style (and not force one) that is our own. To spin off a bit deeper, I also think that part of our craft consists of our work ethic, how we manage the chaotic plots and characters–our process. It takes years to figure yours out and as far as I can tell, everyone’s is different.

  5. July 22, 2015 at 7:04 am

    Dear Mr. Steve,

    My dearly departed friend, Pooh Hodges, spoke about you often. He recommended I read your blog every Wednesday for sound advice.

    “The stories I’ve written, I never knew I had them in me before they came out. I discovered who I was by what I wrote.”

    Thank you Mr. Steve for reminding us the only way to find out what is in us is to write. And as we write we will learn to be ourselves. Not you or a cat. But me, a dog.

    All my best,
    xo
    Martha

    • July 22, 2015 at 6:07 pm

      Martha, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Welcome to the Hodges clan!

  6. Stephanie Spinner
    July 22, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Extremely good advice. Thanks.

  7. July 22, 2015 at 8:24 am

    “That’s not a cliche. It’s the reason for the whole trip.”

    This line is absolute poetry, it literally made me stop and think.

    As always, well said sir.

  8. July 22, 2015 at 9:06 am

    Hey, Steven,

    Awesome post. Was wondering how you see this relating to your earlier post on “The Writer’s Voice”:

    http://www.stevenpressfield.com/2009/08/the-writers-voice/

    I understand that the opposite of a profound truth is often another profound truth, but if possible, I’d love to understand how these two dynamics interact with one another.

    On the one hand, in this article, you’re saying that there IS a unique voice that is uniquely “us” or “ours,” and that we should be consciously trying to find it

    But back in 2009 you also said:

    “The critical fact to remember is that the writer’s voice is artificial. It’s an act of artifice, crafted by the professional to achieve a specific effect in a work of the imagination. It’s not the “real” writer’s voice and if you try to find your own, you’ll drive yourself crazy. Because “you” don’t really exist. I don’t either, no matter how convincingly anybody tells us that we do or how much we choose to believe it. But that’s a subject for another chapter.

    The writer’s voice (or director’s, choreographer’s, photographer’s, entrepreneur’s) arises from the material itself and acts in service to that material. It can, and often does, change from book to book, dance to dance, album to album, business venture to business venture.”

    I’m not necessarily looking for an “answer,” per se (especially not in the space of a blog comment), but could you maybe point me in the right direction in terms of how to mull over the dynamic between these two thoughts? Is there a koan like riddle to meditate on or something?

    As always, thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.

    • July 22, 2015 at 6:08 pm

      Jeff, that’s my story (both of them) and I’m sticking with it!

      • July 23, 2015 at 7:08 am

        “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”
        Walt Whitman

        I wrote that quote down in my phone a few months ago. I think it was the first time I’d heard it, and it immediately resonated with me.

        In a world where consistency is a dogma, and an alluring one at that, this quote seemed to open up a truth I’ve never understood about myself.

        Thanks Jeff for finding this and asking a good question–and thank you Steve for your continual ‘open Kimono’ so we can understand & relate to ourselves better.
        bsn

      • July 24, 2015 at 4:03 pm

        Steve,

        Thanks! Never doubted that both posts were your story and both true.

        To me, it’s a weak mind that, when confronted with a polarity, picks one pole exclusively and then denies or denigrates the other. First rate minds have the ability to look at both poles, to mentally connect them and harness the electricity that flows between them.

        So… here’s my stab at connecting these two things. I certainly welcome others’.

        When the muse (or your unconscious or “Universe”) hands you some bit of inspiration, say a character or story seed or whatever, it always comes with problems and challenges. Narrative challenges, thematic challenges, dramaturgical problems, plot problems, and so on.

        The wrong thing to do at this point is to try to stamp one’s voice or style onto the material. The writer must subordinate himself to the story he’s trying to tell and the material he’s working with, and not the other way around. So a writer’s voice for a given book IS a work of artifice that serves the needs of that book. In this sense, style is nothing more than how you solve problems. It’s a workmanlike, butt-in-chair approach to applying craft.

        And, yet, a writer is drawn to the kinds of stories/characters/themes/etc that he is drawn to — is given the kind of stuff he is given by the muse — largely because of WHO he is, HOW he sees the world, etc. And while the solutions the writer comes up with will be (or should be) grounded in The Craft and the demands of a specific, given project, there’s usually more than one approach and solution, and the particular “pattern language” of solutions that the writer intuitively reaches for will bear his unique signature — they will be part of His Craft, a manifestation of his Authentic Swing.

        This is why the process of finding your voice for a specific project usually involves “creating” it in terms of the needs of your story, “as an act of artifice” as you say, rather than trying to “find your voice” in the abstract. Searching for or trying to find your voice in the abstract will (probably) drive you crazy. It’s a fool’s errand.

        But if you’re sensitive to your own pattern language of solutions, and the kind of stuff you’re drawn to and seem to draw up from the well/muse — then you’ll recognize a style, and you can work on honing and refining that style, in terms of working with your authentic swing, rather than trying to use someone else’s approach or idea of a “perfect swing.”

        Your friend Norm didn’t discover his style of writing by looking for them. He recognized them as patterns of how he tells stories. But now that he’s sensitive to these patterns, he can recognize that while some writers might very effectively and authentically use, for example, private moments, that’s not a particular tool that’s part of his pattern language — it’s not his style. And not only should he not question that, but he should relish in it.

        At least that’s what I’ve got so far…

        • July 26, 2015 at 7:17 am

          Jeff, only the sky knows where this came from, but a couple of weeks ago my brain spat a message at me: Freaking quit censuring yourself.

          Huh. Kind of a STFU message from myself to myself. Quit worrying about what others will think. Write out of the guts, not over them. The auxiliary to the above message doesn’t hold out a great deal of hope for the continuing existence of “the rules.” After all, since when did ‘art’ come with rules?

          Craft, um, that’s a whole ‘nother beast.

  9. July 22, 2015 at 9:24 am

    One of the few aspects of writing that I didn’t have to learn. I’ve always had a distinctive voice, and I’ve amped it and honed it with every word I write.

    (I love the profound respect and admiration you and Shawn have for each other.)

  10. July 22, 2015 at 10:20 am

    I’m constantly amazed at the weekly consistency of your wondrous insights, deeply personal revelations about the creative process and the practical guidance you offer. Thank you.

  11. July 22, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    I love what you said about pursuing art being a journey of self-discovery. I have been trying to go on that journey, but I have begun to realize that I was missing the crucial aspect of creativity. I have ignored/neglected the artistic side of me. I need to bring that out again!

  12. July 22, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    Absolutely loved this. You really speak to me.

  13. Annamarie
    July 22, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    I am just at this stage, where I am hungrily gobbling your advise, love your blog,
    Thank you, i am grateful for it.

  14. July 22, 2015 at 7:16 pm

    I’ve never been a writer and I’ve never aspired to be an artist. I follow Steven because I was once a member of a tight community that holds Steven as their private muse. I am a professional dreamer and Strven is stilly muse.

    • July 22, 2015 at 7:17 pm

      …and I’m drunk

  15. Kevin
    July 23, 2015 at 7:17 am

    Thank You Steven!

    Your post has articulated in one short article “finding your own voice” more clearly and concisely than I have ever read since.

  16. Monique
    July 23, 2015 at 10:31 am

    Thank you for being an inspiration to our generation and this real insightful article. I love the way your words flow. I am just finishing to tackle theWARofART what a masterpiece, I can’t put it down and I sleep and walk thinking about it. It really pierced my heart. I needed THIS wake up call. “The highest treason a crab can commit is to make a leap for the rim of the bucket.”, so it is with us as creative writer’s. Find our own voice and go for it!