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Craft and Craftiness

April 11, 1993|FREDERICK BUSCH | Busch is the Fairchild Professor of Literature at Colgate. His latest novel, "Long Way From Home," will appear next month from Ticknor & Fields.

When writers or editors write about craft, I'm reminded of lean-hipped boys with muscled arms in ribbed, tight T-shirts who took the mysterious Vocational Course in Midwood High School in Brooklyn in the 1950s. They were said to be Learning a Trade. They were Picking Up Skills. Which meant they did craft. Which meant being tougher than I, and from the other side of Bedford Ave. It meant being able to fix faucets or fashion kitchen cabinets for middle-class Flatbush householders like my parents.

When my grades looked too low for me to graduate, much less get into a college, my high school college adviser, a man whose disdain for me in that school filled with smarties was exceeded only by my own, suggested that I learn a craft. Clearly, I would never enter college and--apparently, unlike the Bachelors of Arts from whose ranks I was excluded--would have to earn a living. The terror with which I viewed a life of more or less honest labor achieved with my privileged hands drove me back to my studies.

So when I think of craft, I think at first of jobs I haven't the skills to perform. Apparently a lot of other people think of themselves as uncrafty, for our bookstore and library shelves are bent beneath the weight of books on how to succeed as a writer, books on how to be happy while failing as a writer, books on how to think about writers' block, books on how to thrive in writing workshops, and books that give advice on such matters as writing the Western novel for young adults. We are a nation that takes its pulse as it strives to become better; we are a nation of improvers of the self. And the talk always comes around to craft.

Here's a moment that seems to be about some or all of that: It's an early autumn afternoon, and Cynthia Ozick stands before a large classroom of Colgate University students. She has been invited to visit the Living Writers course to talk about her work. "You want to know," she acknowledges, "how I dot my i's and cross my t's." She talks a very little about Henry James, once--and maybe still--a literary hero of hers. She moves with no warning and with no hesitation from the scrupulosities of James to the seething story of the birth and struggle of Israel, and from there she stands, and the class stands with her, before the vast complexities of what we might call being a Jew.

The students begin by taking notes--there will be a final exam--and they conclude in stillness, the kind of hypnotized awe that parents witness when they read a remarkable story to a child. She speaks to them about embattlement, about actual life and death, about the marrow-deep requirement of a writer that she somehow bear witness to what may at last be unutterable. And when she concludes her talk, she is shaking--or do I recall the passion that shook her language? Am I remembering that I was shaken by it? She lifts her arm a little, then she drops it to her side. She says, "That is how I dot my i's, and that is how I cross my t's."

When I work at my own fiction, I don't think of such matters. I work hard and pray for luck. But when I address the idea of craft on behalf of the luck of others, I think first of Cynthia Ozick's hand as it rose and then fell. I think of the rise and fall of her voice. They are emblems to me of a fact you ought to learn very early as a writer and usually (because, I guess, it's too early) cannot: energy--whether born of love or hatred or need, whether it is driven by what others call good or whether profound in its selfishness, whether the writer who possesses or is possessed by it may seem, at last, indecent or heroic--energy (call it passion, call it focus, say intensity or drive ) is huger than craft and is what will matter most in the lives of readers.

With that caveat, let me offer one more: I am in two of the six books about craft that I'll discuss--"Writing for Your Life" (Miriam Berkley interviews me and makes me sound a good deal pleasanter than I am) and "Writing Fiction" (Janet Burroway includes a story by me and quotes from another).

I think the most readable book here, the one that will appeal to both writers and civilians, is "Writing for Your Life: 92 Contemporary Authors Talk About the Art of Writing and the Job of Publishing." These interviews, from Publishers Weekly, are sometimes edifying and usually at least amusing. From Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser detective series, you learn that "(b)eing a celebrity writer is not so intrusive that you can't stand it . . . it's like getting a rash from drinking champagne." James Dickey, that estimable poet and novelist, remembers a day when, working at an ad agency early in his career, he heard his boss tell a meeting, "Dickey writes poetry as a hobby."' Dickey reports slamming his hand on the table and crying, "Advertising is the hobby!"

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