Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Art of Writing

Neither More Nor Less
(August 12, 2006)

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."--Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.


May I have a word with you?

To understand what art has to do with writing, forget the traditional, dictionary meanings of "art." I don't mean "skill acquired by experience, study or observation," nor "the conscious use of skill and creative imagination, especially in the production of aesthetic objects." And I certainly don't mean "the conscious production of arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty; specifically, the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium."

When I use the word "art," I mean an anthropological definition that I have yet to see improved upon: "Art is man playing at his craft." (Naturally, in this sense, "man" means the species of the human race, the totality of human beings, both male and female.)

Of course, some people might say that this definition can be improved to "Art is man or woman playing at his or her craft" or possibly "Art is a person playing at that person's craft." Although it doesn't quite have the same ring to it, perhaps the best definition of art that comes closest to the original and doesn't offend anyone who is sensitive to any possibility of sexist language is "Art is people playing at their craft."

Craft basically means "skill in planning, making or executing," "especially in handwork or the arts." Therefore, the craft of painting, for example, is being skillful at painting pictures, and being skillful is simply knowing one's tools thoroughly and knowing how to use them sufficiently well enough to produce a pleasing, satisfactory result.

The tools of painting are basically paint, brushes and the medium onto which the paint is applied. And before painters can be considered artists, before they can properly be considered to be "people playing at their craft," they must first be good craftsmen and craftswomen.

Only after painters have mastered their craft can they begin playing at it, using the components to amuse themselves and others, to try out different ways of expressing something, of depicting something, to stretch the accepted limits of their art and bring satisfaction and joy to themselves, their audience and their critics.

Then they are artists.

Like painting, photography is another means of visual depiction of objects. However, photography is more "technical" than painting is, because it requires the knowledge and mastery of a mechanical device, as well as a more scientific analysis of the subject matter in terms of its distance from the device and the amount of light falling on it.

Interestingly enough, the word "technical" comes from the Latin technicus, which in turn came from the Greek tekhnikos, meaning "pertaining to art or skill."

And photographers can also be artists when they have enough knowledge about the craft of photography to be able to play at it, such as knowing which films can be "pushed" (overdeveloped to compensate for an underdeveloped exposure) in order to achieve an effect that couldn't be achieved under normal conditions, how to frame their objects and how to use selective focus all for the purpose of producing a pleasing, satisfactory result.

Finally, writing is a craft, and it can also be an art, just like painting and photography. The tools of the craft are paper and pen, typewriters and nowadays computers. However, the most important tool for writers is their language, and one of the basic facts about language is that no one word ever means exactly the same thing to two different people.

If using language well is a craft, then good writing is an art, to be practiced diligently, until the craft of choosing, arranging, substituting and rearranging words is honed into the fine art of good communication of ideas. After writers have mastered their craft of being able to use their language well, then they can begin playing at it in order to achieve their pleasing and satisfactory results.

Some fiction and poetry are like abstract painting. The audience absorbs and becomes aware of a mood that the artist wants. Slowly, they understand what the writer wanted them to understand, or else they are changed and have a new understanding of something they didn't have before.

Journalism is like realistic painting, because the audience recognizes what they are seeing and know immediately what the writer wants them to know.

Technical writing is like photography, in which the writers show a realistic picture to the audience.

And all writing can be art, if you just work and play at it.


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