Some Thoughts on Craft

How A Writer’s Craft Can Be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part 2

The word “craft” can sometimes take on a negative connotation in discussions of anti-racist workshops, and I get it. Strict ideas about craft have often been used as justification for certain kinds of writing over others, and yet craft does not have to be monolithic and judgmental. Craft should be a set of tools and ideas about how things can and maybe do work, but not a yardstick to measure how ‘great’ or ‘inferior’ something is.

In her introduction to The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, Felicia Rose Chavez states, “The anti-racist model confirms craft as an abstract concept; participants collectively define the workshop vocabulary” and later argues that “all workshop participants have equal access to the language of craft.” She has a whole chapter on craft later in the book, so I hope to return to this in more detail, but for now what I get from these statements is that craft isn’t inherently wrong, but access to craft and student empowerment to define craft are the main issues.

Similarly, Matthew Salesses, in “25 Essential Notes on Craft” on LitHub calls craft “a set of expections” of an audience that are not universal but are standardized. They can be challenged, in other words, and different groups of readers will see craft differently. It is valuable to know these expectations, but not to be defined by them.

Both of these ways to think about craft are similar to the way it is handled in A Writer’s Craft. I talk about craft, not in terms of rules, but in terms of conventions. Conventions change over time, they are different from one culture to another. Conventions are what work, but also what has become accepted, sometimes arbitrarily. Yet it is good to know what they are, so you know what readers expect. Students develop their knowledge of the vocabulary of craft, yet these terms are presented a choices rather than rules.

Take point of view, for instance. In the chapter on “Perspective,” we look deeper than the surface level of first-, second-, or third-person point of view by examining depth of first person POV for both witness and central characters and also from the perspective of time, whether the narration is immediate, reflective, or removed. Similarly, with third person, the narrator can be omniscient or limited, internal, external, or anywhere in between. Tense also makes a difference, as it does with first person. Second-person point of view can refer to the reader, a specific person, or anyone. Point of view is presented as series of choices that affect the expectations of the reader, but no point of view is seen as better or more sophisticated than another. Which perspective you choose affects the expectations of a reader and the kind of information you can or must reveal, so there are better choices for different effects, but there’s no universally right choice.

Poetry is treated similarly. Though I try to present the basics of traditional English prosody, I also present students with alternatives like syllabic verse, Anglo Saxon verse, free verse, and non-western forms. We look at how rhyme is viewed differently in different cultures, with some sounds accepted or rejected as rhyme sounds at different times and in different places. Throughout the book, the emphasis on craft is on understanding the choices that writers can work with and the understanding that literary craft is constantly evolving.

Though shifting points of view can be a problem in a final draft, in an early draft it’s common. Noting where a writer shifts from a limited to an omniscient perspective or from first person to third or from past to present tense is not about correcting an error. The point is to make writers aware of where those shifts have happened, so they can make a conscious choice about which convention they want to follow. And if shifting perspectives is the desired effect or matches the narrator’s voice — we’ve all heard people tell stories orally and change tenses, for instance — then the decision is whether it can be done consistently enough to work or whether it will seem too confusing or sloppy to the reader. I always say that a rule is only a rule until it’s broken well enough to establish a new convention.

My stance on craft is that students need a knowledge of it so they are empowered to make their own choices. Some aspects of craft are based in how language works, others are based on conventions that have changed over time and from culture to culture. By acknowledging this and by including a discussion of other traditions, I hope that A Writer’s Craft can be useful in opening up students to their own exploration of craft, while also teaching some essential vocabulary of craft that helps writers talk to each other about what we do. Many of my students are going into education and will need this vocabulary, both for the standardized tests they need to pass and for teaching in the classroom, yet I hope my book helps them understand craft as a complex set of choices, not as a set of hard-and-fast rules.

One way A Writer’s Craft can be improved in this regard, it is by exploring more elements of craft from other cultures and communities. That is one aspect of The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop and Craft in the Real World that I am eager to learn from. It’s also something I’m always looking to learn from my students, and as I emphasized in the previous post, it’s something I encourage instructors to bring to the table. I don’t claim to have all the answers, though I hope to provide plenty of valuable insights. In any workshop, instructors and students should engage in lively conversations about craft. A Writer’s Craft provides a starting point for those discussions.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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