Posts Tagged ‘art’

Creative people often do a variety of creative forms. Most of the world knows Jeff Goldblum as a fine actor, but few seem to know he’s also an accomplished jazz pianist. The comedic talents of Red Skelton are unrivaled, but he reportedly made more money off his paintings and prints of clowns than he did off television and movies. And writer Stephen King has been known to pick up a guitar every now and then to play a little classic rock for fun and profit (read: charities). Not content to be the proverbial one-trick pony, we creative types just have to get our hands into everything (da Vinci, anyone?).

The question is: where does that drive/motivation/curiosity come from? There has been an ongoing argument throughout the centuries about Nature vs. Nurture, sometimes translated as talent vs. skill. Are we born able to do certain things, or can we only be taught those things? The debate has been long and passionate on both sides, but recent studies indicate it’s more of an <AND> equation than an <OR> equation. We get handed a genetic package of possibilities – the predilections toward art or music or football – and that package can get us a ways down the line, IF we’re given the opportunities. Then to put us over the top, you have to polish that rough stone. Even so, there’re no guarantees you’ll get anywhere.

Music was my first creative medium. I was picking songs out on a friend’s piano when I was two. By the time I graduated high school, I could get by pretty reasonably on a half dozen different instruments, and had composed a piece for full orchestra. Writing was much the same. I was already reading and writing ahead of my age group by the time I started kindergarten. Seven years later, I took the formal lessons and turned them around into fictional explorations, writing stories for extra credit in English class. I’ve also drawn in pencil, sculpted in clay, blown glass beads, danced (yes, in public), tie-died fabric, designed and sewn historical garb without a modern pattern, built wooden furniture, fabricated metal needles, and fletched my own arrows. None of this is unusual from my perspective. But sometimes even my own family is boggled by my abilities.

Recently, I posted pictures on social media of a belt I crafted in wool using an old technique called tablet weaving.


This is something I’ve done as a hobby for nearly a decade now, and I’ve posted other pictures of my work before. But this one seemed to spark something in people. I received a tremendous amount of feedback and questions, and my own mother marveled at how she didn’t realize I could do something like that. To me, it’s just understanding the engineering and then it’s pretty simple. To the rest of the world, it might as well be magic.

Well, maybe it is. I know plenty of people who are amazingly skilled at something, understanding techniques and theories for their chosen thing far beyond the average, but it is impossible for them to think outside the box. They are excellent craftspeople, but lack that intangible spark that would make them truly exceptional. The world is filled with amazingly skilled cellists, but only one Yo-Yo Ma.

And don’t tell me it’s all just about drive or desire or training. I’ve known several people over the years that wanted nothing more than to be “famous” singers. They sang everywhere they could, they took classes, they worked with vocal coaches – anything and everything you can do to learn the craft and be better at it. And you know what – even after all that, they still couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket (not that it seems to matter anymore, what with Auto-Tune – see American Idol…).

Plenty of people really want something with all their heart, and will never get it because they just don’t have even the basics for their great love. Some people will succeed amazingly well despite their lack of “talent” because of their hard work and dedication. Lots of people have natural abilities that could put them ahead of the game if they applied themselves, but they don’t have the push to build on them so their talent goes to waste. All of it is a crapshoot. There is no real answer to the equation, because the one thing that really decides whether or not any creative artist succeeds isn’t within them, but without.

Most creative forms are as much science as art. Writing has grammar and punctuation, music has scales and arpeggios, painting has form and color. You have to learn the rules so you know how to break them, and then you have to work hard indefinitely to build your brand and be ready for opportunities. But, still, nothing guarantees any of us will ever do more than sit in the dark with our wishful thoughts. ‘Cause most of the time it just doesn’t happen. Then suddenly it does.

And that’s why I think it’s magic…

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Writing is as much craft as it is art. Some people tend to use those two terms interchangeably, but I believe them to be different animals. Craft deals with the rules of your field, in this case punctuation and grammar and spelling, and the construction of words and sentences and paragraphs into something that makes sense to most of us. Art is what happens beyond craft; that unexplained extra something that makes us mere mortals just sit there with our mouths open.

Craft and art are neither mutually inclusive nor exclusive. There are plenty of excellent craftspeople that just don’t have that extra oomph, and plenty of stunning artists whose basic craft skills suck rocks. You can be very successful under either banner, without the other one. Most of us are, in fact, quite happily bounding through life just fine as just one or the other. It takes someone truly extraordinary to put the two together, and that’s why da Vinci and Bradbury and Spielberg have their places in history.

I’d like to think I’m a reasonably good craftsperson when it comes to writing, but a couple weeks ago I let loose a short story for critique (“Fiction Break”), and learned just how good I’m not. I received a variety of comments, both publically and privately, that gave me lots of good feedback. But the overwhelming majority didn’t get the point of the story as I had intended it. That’s where I failed as a craftsperson. What was in my head didn’t make it to the page in a manner that could be understood by the average reader.

Now, I could sit here and grouse about how I’m really no good at short stories because they’re really not my thing and just leave it at that, but that’s a cop out. Each writing format has its own unique requirements, and part of being a good craftsperson is to learn those requirements. It’s like learning your scales in music, or your basic figures in skating – you need that solid, automatic foundation under you before you can push the boundaries.

So I have to take those comments and process them and see what I can do to change my story to make the point I want, while still giving a good read. Right now I have the luxury of being able to explain to my readers exactly what I meant, but that doesn’t happen in the real world of publishing. I have to just send my stuff out there and know that my words will hold their own.

This is why critiquing is such an important part of the writing (singing, dancing, painting, etc.) process. Most of us in the creative fields are loathe to accept suggestions for improvement – we’ve just put our hearts and souls into this project, don’t you understand??? – and I am probably the worst of all when it comes to such things. I haven’t been part of a writing group since my days at the American Film Institute, mainly because I just couldn’t find the caliber of writers that I was blessed to experience there. But that doesn’t mean I don’t need critiquing.

There are those that argue the creative fields shouldn’t (can’t?) be critiqued, the question being how can you be objective about a subjective form? That’s why you get such varied reviews on the same creative piece.  In 1913 a riot broke out at the Paris debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The maestro’s ballet broke virtually all the accepted balletic conventions, and pissed off an elite audience that quickly made their opinions known. The cops had to be called in and Stravinsky fled the scene before the ballet was completed, probably in fear of his life. A hundred years later and the same ballet is highly regarded, widely performed and considered a turning point in the development of ballet and music.

The difference comes from more than the passage of time. That night in Paris was an EMOTIONAL outburst of epic proportions, with just as many supporters as detractors flinging fists about. Some didn’t like it because it didn’t meet their expected norm, and some liked it for the very same reason. Emotion is the subjective part of the creative fields, the part every creative person aspires to elicit in his or her targeted audience. I don’t want you as the reader to just be satisfied with my excellent craftsmanship, I want you to be surprised, angered, saddened, or otherwise emotionally moved. The craft itself needs to disappear into the background, letting the art run free.

The objective part of things comes when we try to figure out why something moved us. Time allowed us to take a look back at Stravinsky’s work and dissect what he did, what conventions he broke and how. We can analyze form, function, structure, and begin to understand on an intellectual level why his ballet caused the reactions it did. These same examinations can be done with any creative form and that objectivity is part of what I’m looking for when I send things out for critique.

To really make progress I need both. I need the subjective emotional, visceral response, and I need the objective reasoning of why that response happened. Much as I love having people sing the praises of my writing, if that’s all I’m getting, I’m not improving. That’s just leaving me as a craftsperson, and not challenging the artisan.

And that’s the difference between being somebody who writes, and somebody who’s a writer.

© 2013   Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.

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