Tag Archives: Bret Lott

The ‘So what?’ dilemma

Craft as conduit to art & Brenda Miller’s seminal essay on form.

Adverse Camber x

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, “Against Technique”

I read many student personal essays, memoirs, and literary analyses. I’m not one who bashes student writing, says kids today can’t write—the vast majority of even freshmen are competent writers, especially of essays for teachers. What they’re not is professional writers. Nor do most aspire to be.

But then, while I try myself to emulate a professional’s ability, I’m a student too. Isn’t any writer? I believe that the cure for what ails us aspirants and our flawed efforts lies largely in craft. And craft also addresses the implicit and sometimes explicit curse that vexes memoirists and personal essayists, “So what?” That is, Why should we care about your life? Why should we care what you think? These challenges are fellow travelers with the bitter and ignorant “navel-gazing” charge that faces even bestselling memoirists.

My guest post on this issue, on how memoirists can tell their stories in ways that interest a general audience, appears on my friend Shirley Hershey Showalter’s blog on memoir. Much of my lengthy post discusses a seminal essay by Brenda Miller, “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” which appeared in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle of October/November 2011. Miller, editor of Bellingham Review, emphasizes craft’s role in helping writers turn the raw material of their lives into shapely, publishable stories. Form, the various elements of the craft of presentation, she says, protects writers from the pain of their own revelations, delights readers, and transforms one human’s experience into art.

And it does seem almost magical, really, the way one writer can interest us with her account of her divorce while another’s tale bores or angers. Yet most essays Miller receives as an editor, including over 400 each year as entries for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, fall short. She says:

[U]nfortunately, most of these pieces do bore us, most of them announcing themselves as yet another rendition of “this happened to me, I’m being brave, please listen.” This earnestness makes us sigh and turn to the next piece in the stack. We don’t really want to hear what happened to this stranger.

I can’t help but smile at this pro’s tough love—and she is a pro, Miller having won six Pushcart Prizes herself—even though I know she or her weary posse has rejected my own hopeful submissions for the Dillard Award. Thankfully the models she cites as successes in her essay are ones that I and other hopefuls might learn from. For instance, Miller praises an essay that’s helpfully available on line, Sherry Simpson’s concise “Fidelity,” which cuts back and forth in its braided structure between a bear, which is threatening Simpson and her husband during a wilderness canoe trip, and her displeasure with her mate. In Simpson’s essay one can see how craft imposed on raw experience makes the essay not only interesting but more real, more lifelike. We can easily grasp that even when threatened by grizzly—maybe especially then—a person might still brood about her hubby.

So, craft.

This blog has been mostly about craft, even though craft isn’t the most important thing about writing. The self that produces art and its intent are what’s crucial. A paradox about art, however, is that craft is all we can really discuss. It’s what we can teach and work at. And anyway, craft is the path to art.

Of course, technique by itself is hollow if enshrined. Often to me writing seems simply a struggle with the self, the practice of craft pressuring what’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. This is a spiritual matter and seems too personal and too various to address directly in a group setting or format; it lurks in the resonant negative spaces, the white spaces, of our discussions.

So we talk about craft, the necessary conduit, the way in.

See also my post from 2008, “Between Self and Story,” about writing’s deeper or spiritual dimension and its relationship to craft.

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Filed under blogging, braids, threads, craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-personal, memoir, religion & spirituality, structure, teaching, education

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.

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