Whenever I am crafting (as right now) a poem, story, novel, or essay (as right now), a house-building metaphor invariably (as right now) comes to mind.
I have a general thematic invitation—craft and communion—to build my house around, but already I’m wondering if I’m working on the roof, the foundation, or maybe the bathroom plumbing? Should I have started with a blueprint—or should I have started by studying pictures of beautiful, sturdy houses? That is to say, should I have read some recent Best American Essays or perhaps reread E.B. White’s Collected Essays? But it’s too late for that question because I’m already surrounded with enough building material to construct a veritable Moby Dick of a mansion. Now I see another problem: the big stack of lumber that I have at-the-ready over there does not match the color of the bricks I have stacked at-the-ready over here. And these windows I was planning to use are so tiny that, no matter how big or small my structure, they won’t provide enough light. Readers will feel claustrophobic, as if they’re inside a dungeon and want to get out as quickly as possible!
Now I must tell you, dear reader, that I have grown weary of my house-building metaphor (after my second cup of coffee and a veggie sandwich) and have taken a sudden preference (as of right now) to a walking metaphor. Perhaps content will follow form. I’ll put on my wordometer, set it for 1,400, and away we go. If you’re still with me, I’ll assume that I have already crafted my way into communion. Great. Let’s hold hands and see where our walk leads us.
I’m thinking this walking business is a kind of craft. It’s a skill that takes hours and days and years of daily practice. I started when I was eleven months old, and even today—after decades of practice—I still slip occasionally on Minnesota icy spots or start daydreaming and walk my way into a dead-end and have to backtrack to resume my planned route. I admit I do judge myself as I walk and often wonder if my best walking is the kind that gets me from point A to point B with the biggest steps and in the shortest time. Or does good walking have a more leisurely and musical lilt to it—kind of show-offy-ness? Do I want observers to say, “Look at that dazzling walk! I’m going to follow that walker wherever that walker goes!”
In truth, my best walking occurs when I’m not aware of anyone watching or judging. Call it automatic walking. Call it free-walking. Still, as I walk, I’m haunted by what craft might actually mean. Would I really want someone to say, “You’re a really good walker?” That would be like someone saying, “What you have written is very well-crafted.” The classic damning with faint praise.
I just noticed that I’m the only walker on the street. I don’t seem to be communing with anyone! I suspect most people in the neighborhood think walking, like writing, is a form of idleness, a waste of time. If I am serious about this enterprise, I may have to conclude that my walking, like my writing, might be at odds with community, and, if it is a gift, it is a gift of opposition and challenge. Drivers resent my using crosswalks because it diverts them from their clear intentions. Dogs bark and suspicious people stare. Am I in their eyes nothing more than a clown engaging in a profitless activity while they get on with the real work of the world? Is my writing, like most art, an impediment to what the community around me wants? Art as a nuisance fly? For those of us with a rebel impulse, maybe we should craft our writing to be a pie in the reader’s face. How’s that for some tasty communion?!
Still thinking of writing as taking a walk with an idea, I remember what Donald Hall once said at a conference—and, yes, I believe he was giving a craft lecture. He said a little something like, “I don’t care what tricks of the trade you use in your writing, what I finally value is whether your writing is one person’s inner life speaking to another person’s inner life.” It sounds as if he copied the definition of communion straight from the dictionary: “the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.” No rebel impulse in those sentiments.
It’s impossible for me to walk very far without thinking of William Wordsworth’s daily walks in the Lake Country. Maps I’ve looked at suggest he did some ten-milers—at about four miles per hour! The walking cleared his mind and fed his imagination. Walking strolled right into his heart and writing. I think there was a relationship between Wordsworth’s walking and his craft as well as the widely celebrated relationship between his walking and the content of his writing. I’m thinking that—as in walking—craft becomes for the writer second-nature to those whose daily practice eventually provides a subconscious forming (read crafting) of whatever thoughts or feelings pass through the writer’s consciousness. Crafting itself becomes a spontaneous cordiality that invites a stranger to the table. To put it another way, crafting is like totally assimilated good manners whose function is to make your guests feel at home in your presence.
Uh-oh: it just started to rain. Some thunder too, and I’m wondering if I should get out of my walking metaphor before I’m interrupted by a high-voltage lightning bolt—which would give me another writers’ metaphor with which to work. No wonder writers have been known to say things like, “I just had a bolt of inspiration” or “Something just struck me” or “It just came to me out of the blue.”
Sitting here now, dry and meditative, my mind is arcing back to what Donald Hall said with his craft talk. If crafting is the means by which we connect each other’s inner lives, what was he really saying about craft? That it requires openness? Sincerity? Letting go? Vulnerability? Spilling one’s guts out? Crafting as shedding the strictures that restrain the voice of the inner life? What kind of puddle of words might that lead to? Murky but rich? Scattered but authentic?
It’s still raining, and I need to let my walking metaphor go. Sitting here like a Minnesotan in a fishing shanty on a frozen lake, I’m now reminded of William Stafford’s metaphoric declaration that writing for him was like fishing, casting his very alert line out into the darkness and waiting for a bite. I’ve often wondered if he thought the big fish was something out there in the world, or if it was something lurking in the deep pool of his sub- or un-conscious. From what and for whom does one fish when one is writing? And where is the craft in the fishing metaphor?
Sometimes (like right now), I think it is best to desert all craft and communion talk—theoretical, speculative, philosophic, or otherwise—and admit that the reason most of us write is because it beats working, and it’s the best way we actually know how to connect with people. All we really want is love and acceptance, and if we can get that by sleight-of-word, more power to us! Art as a Mardi Gras of the imagination? Craft in the Old English sense of craeftig, with its real and powerful association with craftiness? Seduction through clever use and manipulation of language? Craft as tricksterism? “Art is anything you can get away with,” said Andy Warhol. Actually, he stole that from Marshall McLuhan, but Warhol got away with the steal and thereby probably proved his point.
Wait. My wordometer says I need to wrap this up. I feel compelled to tell you what I really intended to say. Crafting our work effectively is an act of love and dedication, a sometimes painstaking process of healing the rifts between us. Crafting is the way we gift our work to others—even if that gift is sometimes the trickster’s pie in the reader’s face. Crafting is the repetition and patience of the one who writes by fishing; it is the planning and measuring for the one who writes by building the house; it is the receptive ambling of the one who writes by walking. Even crafting craftily with anything you can get away with can result in sharing intimate thoughts and feelings. Amen. (Oh, I just realized, I didn’t get into crafting as prayer. But that’s a communion for another day.)
Jim Heynen is the author of several collections of poetry (including A Suitable Church, Copper Canyon); several collections of short stories (including The One-room Schoolhouse, Knopf); and several novels (including Being Youngest, Holt). His most recent novel is The Fall of Alice K. (Milkweed Editions), and he has a new collection of short stories, Ordinary Sins: After Theophrastus (Fall 2014, Milkweed Editions). He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has been teaching for the Rainier Writing Workshop since 2008.