Writing as a “craft”

One often hears the phrase, “writing is a craft.” I’d never thought much about it until recently, when I’ve been thinking about other types of “crafting,” usually knitting or spinning yarn, but more recently, quilting. When I tell my family, “I’m going to do some crafting now,” I don’t mean I’m going to the computer to write. I’m usually off to find something made fiber that I can touch with my hands.

As I think about transferable skills, though, I’m aware that I’ve rarely thought of myself as “a writer,” despite generally enjoying writing. I always liked the “write a book and bind it” projects we did in elementary school, and one of them became a 200-page historical fiction novel (handwritten, and in cursive!) that I scribbled out between sixth and seventh grade. My favorite paper assignment in high school was the extra one I wrote about Camus and existentialism because I couldn’t choose between topics. I liked being on the editorial board of my high school creative writing magazine.

When I got to college, though, creative writing was much more high-stakes and critical and I stopped doing it. A poetry editorial board tore apart the heartfelt poem I’d written about my summer crush, and I think that was the end of my attempts at creative writing for pretty much forever. Perhaps it was no longer fun, or done for sheer enjoyment, because the stakes of “being a writer” seemed that much higher.

My parents, in a frequent refrain throughout my life, have always said, “you’re such a good writer!”, with this undertone of, “you could do this professionally, you know!” In fact, as a little kid, when I consistently received “O’s” in elementary school for “outstanding” skills in reading and writing, and a little later on, A’s and A-‘s, I may have thought, “maybe I should be a writer!” But I’ve never pursued it. I think I never could quite wrap my mind around the nebulousness of “being a writer,” compared to my parents’ more cut-and-dry professions.   I’ve envied friends and colleagues who write (professionally, I assume, or at least in some side-gig professional capacity) for newspapers or magazines or who blog in a more official capacity than this particular exercise. I expect I could do so myself, but I haven’t sought these opportunities out.

I’ve also never been the type of writer who bangs stuff out–blogs, op-eds, encyclopedia articles, conference papers, journal articles, etc., like some of the vastly productive scholars I know. Part of me wants to say that I’m just not disciplined enough, but I don’t think that’s the case. I’m starting to think it’s not about discipline, but about inclination.

One thing I wonder is whether I haven’t become this type of writer because then it would become a chore. Just as I couldn’t see knitting hats or scarves or yarn on any type of quantity or speed to make a business venture out of it, perhaps it is that way with writing. Yet, people sometimes have idly asked why, if I enjoy knitting, etc., so much, I don’t make a business of it. I think that trying to monetize what I enjoy on my own time for the pleasure of creating something would take away the fun, turn it into a chore, and make it something I no longer enjoyed. I wonder if this relationship to fiber crafts is mirrored in my relationship to writing, and explains my reluctance to frame it in professional terms.

As I write this, though, I am wondering if the analogy is not so strong: I have written for business purposes, if you count a dissertation, journal articles, review articles, conference presentations, etc, and it hasn’t become a chore. It is still a craft. At some basic level, just as there are words in my head, I find myself trying to get them out there on paper or on the screen, to help myself, to inform others, to spread the word, to aid in remembering, or just in some strange existential way, to make them real.

I find myself wondering, why did I keep a journal at the age of 6 when my family took the train across the country? Why did I do the same, interspersed with postcards, when we took our first international family trip a year or so later? For virtually as long as I can remember, putting thoughts into words has come naturally to me (not so much concepts into numbers, but I’m not really worry about that).

I wonder how the necessity or choice to write plays out in practice for people who do say, “I’m a writer.” Those academic friends who blog and write articles and conference papers and books, always producing. Do they feel a drive to write? Or is it a craft that’s become a chore, necessary to get tenure? Perhaps it’s a pendulum, and sometimes one gets lucky, and the writing that needs to get done to get tenure (or in other arenas, to get paid) will occasionally match up with passion, but more often — like knitting rows and rows of very basic garter stitch — it’s the grinding work that simply needs to be done.

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2 thoughts on “Writing as a “craft”

  1. At one point during my brief respite from teaching (college and high school) I considered work in marketing. However, the thought of having to produce for a company under the guise of a paycheck made my stomach turn. It’s as if I was whoring out the best parts of myself to the highest bidder and even at the highest paid rates, I was cheapening myself and my gifts. The only time I felt good about writing for a salary was the two month internship I had for the local newspaper. Ironically, that gig didn’t pay enough to live on.

    I think it’s important to work with your natural talents. If what you do helps you to live on a daily basis, then you need to do it. More importantly, it’s critical to find the intersection between what feels natural and necessary to you and what the market will pay for. For me, that’s being a teacher. I may do some freelance blogging on the side but that would allow me to control who I share my gift with and how much. In a way, I would be “pimping out” myself but as long as I’m IN control, the use of my special talent would not get OUT of control and therefore out of my hands.

    My best recommendation is the book “Do What You Are”. I know that for my personality, it lists “teaching” in a dozen different ways. At the end of the day, you really do need to do what you are to reach the fullest expression of yourself. You may very well be a writer and that’s great. The question I have for you is “what ELSE are you?”

    • I’ve been meaning to write back for a while, but I wanted to thank you for the comment and say that your phrase “whoring out” resonated with me. Perhaps this is one reason why people end up with “day jobs,” not because they can’t make enough money doing what they really want to, but because they have more control over something that is precious. I will take a look at the book you mention, thanks for the recommendation!

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