I love this word, woke. Technically, I guess you could say it’s a verb in the past tense, as in “I woke up and saw the light,” but recently it’s been used as an adjective to inform the present, as in “I am woke to the reasons my people came to this country and I am not proud of it anymore!” But when I think about craft, and what it means to me, which is pretty much everything—it’s a doctrine and a commitment, it’s a mantra and a fail-safe, it’s better than a cocktail or a joint or a church service—I must start with this old word newly used, this word “woke.” Because most of all, I think that craft is about being awake.
Awake to all the possible language one could use for a moment described by a sentence, and content—or discontent—with the first one that comes to you. The willingness to pursue the right word is a hero’s journey through one’s own mind. The monster is the fear of not having been right the first time. Craft is seeking, courage, and relentlessness.
Awake to yourself, the self you are taking on, for instance, in a story, the point-of-view if you will, which may be a character’s or may only be yours, but which must still be you in a certain time at a certain age to which you must be… woke. All those factors limit word choice in a delicious way. The arbitrary is not craft: craft is the particular, the inevitable, the one true word that is perfect for the person or thing who is speaking. Craft is the ability to rise from the history of all that created a point of view and allow that to inform a moment.
So, awake to context. Look around you and all you will see is context. You see what was manufactured, for instance, in another country by a machine or a person with their DNA on it, their hours invested in it, you see that country, let’s say, you see the whole history of that country, you see the history that brought you to this place in this moment, all of it, your grandmother and the boyfriend who abandoned you because of something about “love the one you’re with,” and the girlfriend who was not who you thought she was, and the father who did not deserve your love except that everyone deserves love so it might as well have been yours, and the mother who drank herself to death whom you mourn as much as you are relieved every day by her passing and… the smell of the coffee brewing four feet away and the sunlight on the counter. Craft is context.
Awake to your motives. Are you writing your memoir to get back at your ex? Are you writing this screenplay in order to show other people how much you went through when your spouse passed away? Are you writing because you know of which you speak and you know that there are other people who might need to know what you know? Are you writing in order to learn about your subject because you hit a wall about it and need to understand it in order to go on? Are you writing to try and find a way to love people who don’t deserve it? Craft is owning your motives; then—and this is important—using them.
Awake to learning new things. Even if they are counter to what you believe, or want to believe, or would find it lots easier not to know. Sometimes an epiphany leads to a complete and utter revision of an entire book. Suck it up. Have a good cry. Then realize how good epiphany feels. How liberating. It is the best energy there is. You must love epiphany more than you love being right. Give up needing to be right. Craft is giving up being right for being woke.
Awake to the mastery of tools. Genre, stakes, structure, rhythm, tension, point-of-view, show versus tell, framing, foreshadowing… master these until you forget you are doing them. I remember visiting Auschwitz in the winter of 1990. We walked under the archway proclaiming Work makes you free and joined a tour led by a small young blonde woman. At every new point of the tour, which included numerous buildings which housed floor to ceiling glass enclosures full of shoes, eyeglasses, braids of hair… she would begin her comments by reminding us of what we had seen before. “And did I say that the previous roomful of eyeglasses were all taken from the Jews as a part of their intake when they first entered the camp?” “And did I tell you that these braids of hair were cut from women…” Craft is the mastery of tools.
All my life I have heard the maxxim, “You can teach craft but you can’t teach talent.” I believed it, much the same way I believed that “all girls suck at math.”
What a load of privileged horseshit.
But in the time that I believed it, it made me feel good about myself because being better than other people back then made me feel better about myself, and I knew I was talented. It wasn’t until I started teaching that I began to realize that talent is, just like trauma, often buried in people; I saw the teaching of craft bring out the talent that was buried in someone who wanted badly to become a writer, and I had to question why I needed to feel good about myself using such a false premise.
I will call her Trisha. Her short stories were unreadable. You couldn’t tell what was happening, because there wasn’t any action. Each story existed in the head of a character, and it was as if the character had no body, and no location. These characters rarely interacted with anyone in their environments. You had to trust the writer that she knew them, because you never got to know them yourself by getting to experience their actions. The words she used were often vague and uninteresting, and her grammar was atrocious. What was it anyone saw in this writer? Who let her into the program? All I could think of was that she had a kind of quirky point-of-view. Somehow, this emerged from the seemingly random pile of words she submitted each packet. Her characters were kind of awful people, and for some reason you kind of liked them.
But that grammar. Sentences like: “She come home through open door and notice dog panting over shredded book.” She didn’t talk this way, why did she write this way? After a few packets, I got familiar enough with her work to be a bit bold, and I pointed out she wrote as if she didn’t speak English as her first language. That’s when she looked up at me and said this: “Well, I didn’t grow up in an English-speaking household. Do you think that has anything to do with it?” We realized this: that the kind of trance state she went into when she wrote produced the sentences she’d heard all her childhood. These were natural to her, and that’s what came out when she wrote. She had never noticed this. I asked her to go take a course on grammar at the community college where she lived during the winter break. Then we began our second semester together. The stories that emerged from her after that were an entirely new species. She did not drop her indigenous voice: she woke to it, she used it as the voice of her narrator, and that narrator began to really define the most wonderful world of misfits in a coffee shop you could ever hope to meet. And there it was, like a fat patch of sunflowers growing in a hayfield: talent.
—And did I say awake to tools? Matthew Crawford, my favorite philosopher, says this about using tools and maintenance in general: To be living, to be truly free, consists of “skillfully engaging” with the obstacles and frustrations of reality, as when playing musical instruments, repairing engines, raising children, or, this is my addition, writing books. He prizes entanglement with the real, because that, he says, is how we really experience magnificence. “To encounter things in this way is basically erotic, for we are drawn out of ourselves toward beauty.” You cannot build anything worth building: a house, a hayfield, a memoir, without tools, and the best tools are the ones that last the longest, evolve their shapes to fit your hands, feel natural in your grip. Tools can be costly. Sometimes they are handed down, sometimes you have to buy them. And you cannot use tools without training. Otherwise, you could cut off something very important leading to enormous blood loss. You could hurt yourself. Craft is that physical dance with tools that eventually becomes subconscious, so that the tools become a part of your hands and using them makes you feel sexy.
Hermann Hesse, in Siddhartha, put these words into the head of his main character, as a revelation late in his life: “…a true seeker, one who truly wished to find, could accept no doctrine. But the man who has found what he sought, such a man could approve of every doctrine, each and every one, every path, every goal; nothing separated him any longer from all those thousands of others who lived in the eternal, who breathed the Divine.”
To a writer, this means that finishing, that publication, that money are truly not what we write to find. Craft is the one true thing which opens our writing to all the possibilities in thought, and to the understanding of all the ways there. Craft is the result of woke. And the pathway there.