Freedom of form and expression is a religion for artists, whether they’re writers, painters, sculptors, or performers.
In order to find that freedom and use it purposefully, we learn and master the basic rules, conventions, and technicalities of our art, no matter the medium.
We do this so we can break those rules, make them our own.
Writing lends itself well to an analogy of movement, so let’s compare it to dancing as an example of this study-master-create-destroy relationship, specifically technical/creative writing and ballet/modern dancing.
Both are art forms best practiced on a foundation of technical knowledge, so it will never be a case of either/or but rather and/also—as knowledge and experience grows in one genre or discipline of an art form, it informs our work in other genres. It’s why the technical writer should take a creative writing class, the fiction writer a poetry workshop, the ballerina a modern dance class, the stage actor a ballet class.
The technician (the technical/professional writer, the ballet dancer) versus the artist (the creative writer, the modern dancer). The latter creates art, while the former creates understanding.
This echoes a concept in an essay I just read for class, if you’ll spare a moment for theory. In “Authors and Writers,” Roland Barthes proposes that language is a structure that can be redefined or lost entirely for the author who functions to create ambiguity (a means), while the writer is bound to language as a vehicle for clarity (an end).
Applied to the real world, it’s why undergraduate writers with romantic notions of coffee shops, turtleneck sweaters, and dark-framed glasses may perceive technical writing as boring, not as sexy and free as creative writing. (If only they knew it was really us in those dark glasses, jacked up on caffeine and pushing deadline for the script of a video that demonstrates new software functionality, not a wandering soul contemplating the influence of religious and social construct in the coming of age of the heroine in a new novel, which surely everyone will read…)
Anyway, as a creative writer I’ve lived through moments of sheer boredom in various gigs as a technical writer, like creating documentation for an open-source content management system that seemed to bear ill will toward the end user who hoped to create, organize, and manage their content. (This boredom came before I started thinking critically about the theory and practice of technical writing.)
However, I’d argue there isn’t a creative writer out there who wouldn’t savor the precision and power of language involved in technical writing, the first step toward artistry and manipulation of structure.
Getting there requires an understanding of the foundation of the technical aspects of the medium, be it movement or language.
The appeal of creative writing—and I am definitely in support of following this path—reminds me of my daughter’s attitude toward dance when she first started (granted, at 2 ½-years-old). She thought hip hop, jazz, or even tap would be preferable to learning the technique of a plié in the five positions at the ballet barre (skipping third), drawn instinctively to what seemed to be a total freedom of expression in movement in the other disciplines.
The freedom of creativity seems more accessible than rules, structure, and technique, at any age.
Just as the dancer learns basic language, positions, and articulations at the barre and puts them together in combinations at center floor, the writer both masters and challenges the conventions of their genre through practice not only in grammar and mechanics, but also craft and artistry in language and storytelling.
Again, we learn the rules in order to break them and re-create them. The act of creating itself is an act of discovery articulated through a re-creation of the set of symbols (language, steps) we learn as technicians.
In creative writing, this is the freedom to split infinitives with abandon, to fragment our sentences for the sake of authenticity or effect, to prefer ambiguity for our Dear Readers over clarity. It’s how we share what Joyce Carol Oates refers to as “the child-self…a sort of flame that continues to burn throughout our lives, to which the writer or artist is by nature more attentive than other adults.”
Too much precision and “correctness” would extinguish that flame for our reader. But of course, it’s the creative writer’s duty to ensure this ambiguity is a result of artistry, not poor command of language and technique. Working outside genre conventions? Make it a challenge to current thinking in the field, not an oversight.
Artistry is a product of both originality and technical mastery.
The trained dancer is bound to the same paradox of technique and control versus creative freedom and individuality. A good example here is in modern dance–you have to know where a traditional position is and be able to “hit it” in order to break it, as dictated by choreography or spirit of the moment.
This reminds me of a statement in a modern piece choreographed by a beautiful and brilliant master. It was a move aptly named the “oh, s%&t!” because it required not a specific form or number of steps, but rather the dancer (me) had to literally throw herself onto the floor—a move that couldn’t possibly be fully scripted or choreographed, and it varied each time. (Writers, ever revised your work with the same sentiment two times in a row? Didn’t think so.)
Technique came in, though, as the momentum of this throw—initiated by the action of an arm toss—recovered into a very specific turn that led into preparation for the next movement.
Creative writers make this “oh, s%&t!” move all the time. We throw ourselves into our craft and work toward something beautiful, but we cannot predict the finer details of the outcome nor the ways in which our audience will perceive it. The artistic and poetic will always grow out of our technical control, the fulcrum on which we balance our turns of creativity and clarity.
Barthes, Roland. “Authors and Writers.” A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
1983. 185-193. Print.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Introduction.” Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. xvi. Print.