Bret Lott’s ‘Against Technique’

If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.—Bret Lott

This blog has been mostly about craft, even though I know craft isn’t the most important thing about writing. Not by far.

A paradox about writing—maybe any art—is that craft, or call it technique, is what we can discuss. It’s what we can teach and work at. And anyway, craft is what releases what we’re really after, which is art. But technique itself is hollow if enshrined.

Sometimes to me the craft of writing seems a daily struggle with the self—the practice itself pressuring whatever it is that’s in the self that engenders art to come forth. This is the real mystery, ultimately—not how it’s done but that it’s made to exist and why.

Which is why I love Bret Lott’s long essay “Against Technique,” published by Creative Nonfiction. Some excerpts, not in his order but mine:

Technique, of course, can be taught. Its result, however, is a kind of uniformity that yields not art but artifice. I know this firsthand, having been on the Fellowships in Literature panel for the National Endowment for the Arts a few years ago in both fiction and creative nonfiction. After reading hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts, the one constant I saw that arose from them all, the one common denominator—and it was, let me assure you, a most common denominator – was the technical competence of the works at hand. They were technically competent. Nothing more, nothing less. Only competence—creative nonfiction and fiction alike, all told well, whether in any number of obtuse or conventional ways—that revealed a kind of routine verbal acumen, but that had, sad to say, no heart. No soul. Only windows all alike and all in a row, behind them merely automatons—dressed in various costumes of style, but automatons nonetheless. When the consciousness of the artist is neglected for technique, the result is often serviceable, may resemble truth, but it will never be alive.

 It is only through paying attention by you, the author, that art will be made. It is and always will be only your seeing, if I may paraphrase a bit brazenly Thoreau’s unintended dictum, “It is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.” This seemingly claustrophobic fact is, in truth—whether in the art of the essay or of fiction, and why can’t we also include poetry as well?—the single most liberating force behind the making of art.

It’s all about scene. It’s all about detail. It’s all about one good sentence placed after another and another until, when you look up at the end of the day, you see through the pale light of late afternoon that you have pieced together a story—whether fact or fiction—that might, if you are lucky, be larger than itself. That might be, if you are beyond lucky and in fact blessed, be larger than you.

And it is this single-minded doing, finally, that is the true triumph of art, the true liberation only the artist can enjoy: the discovery that you can. Here is accomplishment, and here is reward, no matter how piecemeal the final product, no matter how intimately one will know its flaws, no matter how rough the road was to get here.


Filed under craft, technique, discovery, NOTED, scene, working method

7 responses to “Bret Lott’s ‘Against Technique’

  1. A great post indeed. It gets me thinking about how diverse great writing is. This blog has that kind of diversity- musings about poverty and hygiene in restaurants have rubbed against interesting theories about ‘Gilead’!
    Many thanks,

  2. Richard Moore

    This for me was an especially good post. Although we all know that craft and art are separate but closely related entities, and that the holy grail is the latter, it is SO easy to forget that the grand goal of art in the pursuit of it. Brett Lott is especially excellent in reminding us, and in such lyrical language, of this truth. I am struggling to concoct a personal essay just now on the art of art criticism, and BL’s observations about the distinction between “technique and story,” in this case painting, are so very apt. I wonder that more essayists don’t address the intersection of the several creative endeavors: visual arts, music, and literature..

    Thanks again, Richard, for a fine learning experience!

  3. I found this a refreshing reminder that it isn’t all about getting it right, in the sense of craft, but actually connecting with what is trying to get said, what is trying to come into being, what is, as BL says, bigger than us. Art–the literature I was moved by when I was just getting started in life–was what made me want to be a writer, and this post, Richard, reminds me that that is still what drives me. Being a writing teacher, as I’m sure you know, forces one to talk about technique all the time, so it’s great to be reminded that the end is or should be far greater than the means. Paulette

  4. So true. This is why I’ve done my best writing in Thoreau-like settings. I came across this passage in my mother’s 1943 journal. It reminds me that the opposite of technique may be inchoate yearning.Sorry for the long entry, but I think it illustrates the point. The writer is the 15-year-old farm girl who will become my mother:

    “Allen and Lloyd are trapping this year for muskrats. I usually go along out with Allen to look at his traps. The other night it was raining to beat the band, and a strong wind was blowing and it was dark out. I put on a pair of trousers that were Dad’s when he was young, a hood on my head, scarf, jacket, raincoat, gloves and golashes. We had to walk far, cross a creek, walk in mud, and climb over a fence. But, honestly I liked that. The wind was e-eerie and howled as it rushed around the trees, as though driven by some hidden force. The cold, beating rain sent a tingling sensation through me. The cold wind and fresh air left my cheeks and rosy, glowing red. And if you ever want to breathe fresh air that is really fresh go outside in the country sometime when its cold and raining. I can’t tell you my thoughts as I stood there close beside my young eager brother. There was nothing in the traps. But that didn’t matter. I shivered as I looked at the dark angry sky “sending” forth it’s fury in the stinging rain and moaning wind. My brother noticed it. “Whats the matter, Barby, scared? No, Allen, oh. No – only this sort of makes me feel queer and so small. Yea, it does he agreed and then looked at me and said. And it makes you think of God too. I nodded in silent agreement, and hand in hand we walked slowly toward the house.
    Some day, diary I should like to be a writer. What would I write? Well – – something that I feel deep inside me and could make others feel too. Just an inspiration, perhaps but still I’ve always had that secret yearning to write – write – write make other people feel what I can’t make them see, that which is hidden deep inside me somewhere. Write? Yes but not for fame or money. But because I want to write, because writing affords an outlent for those deep, emotional turbulent feelings that are somewhere in me. Why don’t I then? Because I am waiting for something. I don’t know what but it is something. Something that I do not have – – yet. Perhaps it is experience – in life – in living which I lack as yet. Perhaps it is — – oh it is something – an indefinable something which I am waiting for. Perhaps I shall never find it. If not I shall never write.
    It’s snowing now. (Big flakes)”

    • Thank you for sharing this, Shirley. You are so fortunate, as a person and as a writer, to have the journal of your mother’s fifteen-year-old self. And this does indeed illustrate the point. I often am humbled by the essays of my “non-writer” students, just who aren’t even English majors but who have something to say and try to say it simply. In a way, I think technique is a way for those who call themselves Writers to get back to this. Which is another reason that technique should not be enshrined, which makes it become the goal.