As a writer I consider myself an artist using the medium of words. I do have an art background, although I’ve never made a cent off a drawing or painting. I also have a technical background, having worked with cars and computers pretty much my whole life. That might seem like a random opening for a blog post, but it actually ties in with the theme.
Long ago, or maybe not so long ago, I was sitting in my high school art class. A discussion started at my table about what music was best because the teacher would play the radio while we worked. We as a class argued over what station to listen to. One of the kids at my table was a fairly proficient musician.
The discussion among us started with the musician stating rather boldly that a popular song playing was technically easy to play and therefore bad music. I don’t remember what song it was, it might’ve been something by Stone Temple Pilots or Smashing Pumpkins or some other popular band at the time, but the technique being employed at that time was something not really heard much before, so I brought up the fact that the creative element was high and that had to count for something.
The musician balked at that, because obviously I knew little to nothing about music. In other words, he used an argument from authority, which is most often a fallacious way to prove a point, and yet can be surprisingly effective with the uninformed. I was not deterred, pointing out similar and highly respected examples in other art forms, yet he contended that anything easy to play was by nature bad music.
Just to throw this in the mix, this musician also argued that grunge rock was bad because some technical elements were off. That’s a stylistic choice within the genre, not the result of at least most of the musicians being unable to play technically precise music, but he took issue with the technical deficiencies despite their being obviously an expressionist move.
Who was right? The musician at my table, for saying something artistic is good only if it is technically correct and difficult to perform? Or me, for pointing out that creativity is really the key?
You can have your own opinion, but this is something I’ve thought about repeatedly throughout my life. After all, I am a creative professional , a full-time wordsmith, so this matters quite a bit for my career.
The final conclusion I’ve drawn is we were both wrong.
I cringe every time I see someone on Twitter use the hashtag #WritingCommnunity. It’s like watching a mechanic who isn’t sure how to properly seat a box wrench before attempting to loosen a bolt. By not being technically correct you’re making a mess and devaluing your work.
Steven King bluntly lays out the importance of technical proficiency in his seminal book On Writing. If you haven’t read it, I would recommend at least checking it out from a local library. King gives a brief lesson on grammar and usage within, illustrating that how you say something supremely affects the reader.
If you don’t have a firm grasp on the English language, it’s quite difficult to use your writing to truly move people. Maybe you can still write a story compelling enough to really engage readers, despite your ham-handed use of the English language, but that’s more a matter of dumb luck than proficiency.
To truly succeed as a writer, you must become linguistically formidable. Think of a wordsmith like a blacksmith. Who knows metals better? How much time and effort does a blacksmith put into a shaping a bowl? Does he just heat up some random metal, give it a few whacks with whatever hammer until it’s in a shape somewhat resembling a bowl, then plop it down and say, “haters gonna hate”? Yet quite a few writers do the equivalent with their work because they don’t bother to become truly proficient in language.
I studied English on both the undergraduate and graduate levels, yet I’ve learned so much more about language in my time since departing the academic world. None of us will ever know everything there is to the English language, but you should always be progressing and expanding your knowledge.
Once you understand the rules and conventions of English, you have the ability to manipulate and even violate them with proficiency. If you don’t understand them and violate a rule or convention out of ignorance, what you’ve done is quite obvious to those who understand. And there are plenty of non-writers out there who have solid to excellent language proficiency. If those readers understand the importance of knowing language well, shouldn’t you as a writer strive to understand it even better?
Of course you can be a writer and have a flimsy grip on the English language. I see it all the time. But if you want to become a truly great writer you must strive for proficiency. It might not happen overnight, but at least be moving in that direction consistently.
Have you ever read something which was technically written quite well, but ultimately there was nothing creative about it? That was a shocking number of books, short stories, and even poems I was compelled to read in my collegiate studies. I could admire the masterful use of words and sentence structures, but ultimately what was being said was just plain boring.
The literary fiction crowd often falls into this trap. If you point this out, it’s an opportunity for them to look down their noses at you and declare you must not have understood or appreciated the deeper themes in what was being said. You’ll be cast as part of the unwashed masses. These people argue anything “commercial” is garbage dumbed down to appeal to the lowest common denominator of society. That’s quite the elitist argument I’ve heard far too much.
Just because something is entertaining and creative doesn’t mean it’s filth. If that were the case, you could dismiss a large portion of Shakespeare’s work. People clamored to the Globe Theatre because the plays were just so fun to watch. While some plays like Romeo and Juliet were adaptations of existing works (and far superior, in my opinion), masterpieces such as Macbeth and King Lear are extremely creative. At the same time those and other plays written by the Bard were technical masterpieces. He achieved a balance between technical proficiency and creative vibrancy.
Any writer striving to become great should be aiming for a convergence of technical mastery and creative vibrancy. That’s easy to say and far more difficult to do.
There’s a risk in placing a greater emphasis on technical mastery, at least among certain writers. While your prose might read better, the problem is what you’re saying could quite frankly be incredibly boring. Sorry, but no matter how artfully you describe paint drying or grass growing, it’s still not a stimulating topic.
I’ve dealt with quite a few writers who are highly creative but their writing is just a dumpster fire. We’re talking sentence structures which make little sense. As a reader you’re trying to navigate through their words like an explorer chopping through jungle vegetation. Readers don’t want to work that hard to understand what you’re saying, no matter how amazing the creative content of a story.
Nobody, or virtually nobody strikes a perfect balance between technical proficiency and creative vibrancy in their writing. If you do, you’re one of the most gifted writers to have put pen to paper, metaphorically speaking.
Still, this is a goal anyone who wants to become a truly great writer should be working towards. Even if you only get close to achieving a convergence of the two, the drive to balance both vital elements of the craft will carry you to a higher level than if you were to continue emphasizing one over the other.
Exactly how you achieve this balance is one of the many tricky elements in writing. It’s so elusive some writers don’t even perceive the ability to balance these elements as being something they need to develop.
Image by Steven Symes. All rights reserved for this blog post text and the accompanying photograph.