[literary] craft: what does it mean
when i began my foray into higher education centered around creative writing, the first major obstacle to my understanding of the building blocks of literature was the concept of "craft." unlike some of my incoming cohort-counter parts in my first year of my MFA program, it had been almost a decade since i was last in "school" and as such, i was intimidated by my lack of literary knowledge. but i was there and ready, so i dove into the classes offered and did my best to learn from every morsel of information passed to us.
a huge part of many creative writing MFA programs is that you must complete a certain number of annotations per semester. an annotation is [essentially] when you read a book and then choose an element of craft by which to evaluate said book. i detested this. it was the absolute worst part, and remains the most challenging aspect of the program for me. i felt as if this one type of assignment embodied everything that was wrong with [and didn't make sense about] the higher education system. i get that programs need to have requirements to evaluate whether or not students pass, but annotations seemed to be the classic parroting back of information that you thought your teacher wanted to hear.
in my program, the annotations came from a list of books that was determined with your advisor. this list included books that either you wanted to explore because the subject matter related to your thesis work or books your advisor felt would give you information (ideally through the annotations) on how to structure/conceptualize/advance your thesis. you were given the book list, but not a list of craft elements that you were to explore. the idea being, you read through the book, then identify the craft element you were going to investigate, and then read through again to find the sections that highlight that element.
the other reason i found annotations to be the worst was that i was at a severe loss to explain what the heck "craft" meant. this brings me to the point and purpose of this post.
let's start with the bones of the word itself. Merriam-Webster defines the word "craft" as follows:
[as a:] Noun
1: skill in planning, making, or executing : DEXTERITY
2a: an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill
2b: crafts plural : articles made by craftspeople, a store selling crafts, a crafts fair
3: skill in deceiving to gain an end
4: the members of a trade or trade association
5: plural usually craft
a: a boat especially of small size
b: AIRCRAFTc: SPACECRAFT
[as a:] Verb
1: to make or produce with care, skill, or ingenuity
while it is fun and interesting to think about words and their history (the noun version of craft was recorded as being used during the 12th century, and the verb as of the 15th century), this definition did not point me in the direction of comprehensive clarity. so the brand-new-to-graduate-school version of me did what i always do with something i don't understand. i googled it.
i will never forget those moments after hitting the "Enter" key on my computer, hoping that the vastness of the internet had a clear cut answer for me. as i toggled through page after page, i found there is no such thing as an easy answer.
the feeling that welled up in my stomach was a kind of hollowing out. the kind of thing you do to pumpkins on halloween, but not fun. pretend the pumpkin is alive and you are using the spoon to scrape its guts out. that is pretty much how i felt as i clicked next page after next page. i think most of us humans, with all our ingenuity and creativeness, when given a task also want to be told explicitly what to do. we want to please. we want to know exactly what the expectations are, so we can meet them. or ignore them. but we want them there. we need that clarity, that purpose.
so there i was, spoon in hand, gutted.
several days later, i shoved myself back inside myself and decided that if my school wasn't going to give me a clear objective to work with and the internet was filled with conflicting and confusing information, i would do the second thing that made the most sense to me: research, to get the clearest picture possible of what i needed to accomplish.
i began with compiling the smattering of information i could find on the internet through writing-focused websites (mostly college writing center sites or well-sourced opinion based articles and wikipedia). so let's start with this list.
point of view
while these are the building blocks for pretty much every narrative, i felt that these were a bit too basic for what i was reading (mostly poetry and hybrid texts) and for what i felt my advisors would be looking for, so i kept digging.
dialect / diction
flashbacks / time
i knew that what was expected for these annotations was that you picked a craft element/theme and discussed how the author either did or did not use this element, and provide examples within the text proving your annotation thesis concept. however, in the work that i was to be reading / writing, i knew that the above concepts wouldn't quite get me through the required minimum of forty-five annotations before the end of the program, as you cannot repeat craft topics. so i went to the writers i knew and worked with to get a more comprehensive picture of outside-the-box creative craft concepts. the list of potential concepts grew and grew, but how i could apply them became the tricky thing. for example, just because i know about repetition, doesn't mean it will be abundantly clear how and why an author used repetition within the book that happened to be next on my reading list.
one day, a really good friend of mine and i were discussing the pitfalls of MFA programs and i was lamenting how challenging it was to come up with a craft topic to write about in Raymond Carver's Cathedral. my friend looked at me with a bewildered expression on his face and shared the most valuable wisdom imparted on me during my experience as a writer: 'craft can be anything. whatever moves you or infuriates you about a work, talk about that, how the author does that thing.'
it all began to click. all i had to do was read the book, and while reading think about what the author was doing when crafting it.
literary craft is both complex and simple. what are you doing and how are you doing it.
once i began to process this, i came to understand that there is no limit to what i could write an annotation on, what topic i could explore, what adventure of analysis i could go on. i began to really enjoy writing the annotations (mini-research papers essentially). below i am going to share some of the craft topics i chose to write about.
for this craft topic, i read J.D. Salinger's story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" as part of his book, Nine Stories. in my annotation, i explored Salinger’s use of color and subsequent lack of color to give the reader a deeper sense of what is happening with a character’s mental stability. in the first portion of the story, the colors are all muted or pale, suggesting a bland emotional landscape of the characters and their experience; as if they aren't taking things seriously. in the second portion, where we are introduced to the focal character of the story, the colors become vibrant and intense. simultaneously, they are also colors that are often indicative of specific emotional states; blue as a symbol of depression and yellow as a symbol of insanity. in the final portion, the sudden and complete lack of color creates an emotional vacuum for the reader, having no color means having nowhere to look, nowhere to go, no way out. whether Salinger intentionally used color in this way or not is irrelevant, the only thing that matters was in my reading of it how color was the craft element that spoke to me and helped me have a deeper understanding of the story. that annotation remains one of my favorites, as does the book.
in Ruination, set in an any-where town in the Midwest, Katie Jean Shinkle tells a story of erasure where plants and flowers seemingly take over girls' bodies till there is nothing left of them. i chose to explore the craft concept of subtext to show how Shinkle used the flora that infiltrated and enveloped women as a subtext for the de-valuing and abuse of women within contemporary society, while simultaneously growing the concept of the female as the space where great change can happen. this incredible story weaves the weird and wild to showcase alarming trends in cultural thinking-behavior while keeping the reader interested and engaged in the characters and the apocalyptic experience of their lives. again, one of my favorite books from an author who is always pushing the boundaries of literature and narrative.
the use of a prologue
The Mayflies, by Sara Veglahn, centers around the mental questioning by an unnamed narrator regarding what is real and what is not in the context of life, death, and transcendence. my focus in this annotation was on Veglahn's use of a prologue in the context of the large narrative to set the emotional stage for the work, and provide a hint of foreshadowing. at the point when i read and annotated this book, i was playing with the idea of using a prologue in my thesis and by focusing on how and why she crafted and used her prologue, i gained insight into how i could shape mine. Sara Veglahn is a treasure, her poetic narratives are mainstays in my mental workup of how to craft a story. her second book, The Ladies, was another that i [loved and ] annotated, focusing on repetition as ritual.
haunting a text through call and response
one of my favorite authors of all time is the woman who first taught me about the power of creative writing, Selah Saterstrom. she has several incredible works, but i chose to annotate the story/section, “The Tale of Brother and Sister” in her book, Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics because of the way she braided a conversation between the living and the dead, and the idea of how twins stay whole even when one has died. this call and response conversation between siblings makes the work itself feel haunted, as well as shows how to effectively allow two mindsets to live in one body within a narrative. since i write a lot about mental illnesses, i found this narrative immensely informative on how to write about multiple components of the self existing congruently inside one mind, which allows the text to retain a haunted feel, as if another identity is always lurking.
sound patterns and vowel/consonant emotional coding
when i decided i wanted to get back into writing, and the creative writing world, i got in touch with my professor, Selah and her first suggestion was for me to start reading contemporary writers. one of the books she suggested was Potted Meat by Steven Dunn. this novel is a coming of age story based in west virginia told in poetic-prose snippets and incorporating more craft elements than i knew what to do with. ultimately, i chose to focus on Dunn’s use of consonants and vowels to create within the reader a physical embodiment of the emotions the characters in the narrative experience.
[Note: you might be asking yourself what that means. well when most people think about creative writing, they become interested in story arc, plot, character development, etc. they do not, however, delve too deeply into the language itself, down to the sentence structure, and the words that make up the sentence. within the sentence structure there are an immense amount of complexities that go into building a sentence, and at that, a good sentence. to understand how to manipulate sentences to get a visceral reaction from the readers, i suggest grabbing a copy of What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive? by Reuven Tsur. in his book, Tsur looks at many different sides of language and diction to try and tease out ways for writers to hone and bring a depth of emotion to their work. he explains that i and e vowels have a higher sound quality because they are pronounced at the front of the mouth, and thus that high sound creates an unsettled or agitated or energetic emotional response in a reader. where as u and o are lower, being pronounced at the back, and creating a calmer, lullaby-esque emotional tone. similarly, the consonants n, m, and l invoke tender-tonedness when pronounced, while k, p, r, and t feel harsher to verbalize. with this information, the author is then able to look at the sentences within their work and find ways to make a fight scene more primal or a love scene more sensitive or vice versa.]
for me, a clear example of an author utilizing this kind of sentence-level language breakdown to create a more engaging experience for the reader was Steven Dunn’s Potted Meat. his incredible writing and well-honed technique gave me a new perspective on the micro elements of creative literature.
mixed medium / hybridizing texts
Ladies Lazarus, by Piper J. Daniels, is a collection of essays that manipulate the text, formatting, and the space of the page to give the reader an honest and bodied understanding of the experience of being bipolar. in the essay “Sirens,” by focusing on how Daniels used and highlighted words within the suicide notes of others to communicate her own experience, i was able to gain perspective on how to use multiple texts / space of the page to inform the reader's understanding of emotionally complex topics. this was an incredibly important text for me, because it helps me see that my thesis needed to focus on how i was using my multiple mediums to communicate my own experience with mental illness. Daniel's conversational yet poetic tone communicates the experience of living with mental illness in a way that is easily accessible for the reader. i still pick up this essay collection when i am feeling lost within the mental landscape of my own work as a grounding rod, and while it is an emotionally hard read, it is one of my favorites.
text as a portal
in the first three parts of the four-part essay "Decreation,” as part of Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera, Anne Carson examines the writings of three women writers, Sappho, Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil. she utilizes the writings of these women and the topics they explore to create a kind of portal through which a reader can access the telling of great truths. of every book i read throughout my MFA program, this was by far the most influential, not only because of how eloquently Carson weaves her concepts from one woman to the next and expands upon each as she goes, but also how in the fourth part of the essay she ties up the concept of writing as the portal, a way of accessing the truths of the universe and the deepest truths within ourselves. this effective and enchanting essay changed the way i thought about my own work, and the way that telling of truth creates a portal of understanding for the author and reader.
some of my other favorite craft concepts that i explored in my MFA annotations were:
space on the page
embedded journal entries
dreams as undercurrents
white space in poetic prose
letters as conversation / narrative telling
quotations as a line break
photography as narrative
unraveling a character's psyche
the art of the twist
disconnection / dismemberment of text as the body
visions as narrative coding
music - harmonies
pausing / how and when to break
the text as the body
footnotes and notes as additional perspective
unfinished narrative - can't wrap this up
this list is not comprehensive or exhaustive, but i am sharing it to give some context to where these concepts of craft can contort and morph to for those of you curious enough and free-thinking enough to engage with this immensely long winded post. when i started writing annotations, they were the hardest part of the graduate school process for me. but now, almost two years later, i think about the concepts and devices i researched and wrote about constantly while editing and revising my own work. how am i using color or vowels or musicality within my work to advance the larger story or give the right emotional tone and timbre to the work.
so when it comes to craft, you truly hold all the keys to unlocking the depths of knowledge within yourself.
[Note: if you are curious about any of the books i reference, the titles are a hyperlink to where you can buy them (and support small presses / independent book sellers). i strongly encourage that all of these stellar works be purchased and read pronto, and if you are into that kind of thing, annotated.]
thanks for listening.