Writer vs. Artist

I’ve been preparing material for this semester’s round of classes — along with the inevitable couple of “Intro to Lit” classes, I’m teaching a 200-level “Intro To Creative Writing” and my absolute favorite class since its entirely my baby, the 400-level “Novel Writing” class.

In Novel Writing, I’ll have (mostly) focused students who really want to be there and who are interested in writing fiction. Yes, there will be the one or two students who’ll drop the class when I read the Riot Act (otherwise known as the syllabus) on the first night, when the suddenly realize that I expect them to do one hell of a lot of writing during the semester — hey, it’s a 400-level class for a reason! But for the most part, the students who take the course already have a certain dedication — they’re already, to some extent, “writers.”Not “Artists.” You see, there’s a difference.

Now, in the the Intro class it’s a little different. For that class, the crop of students usually falls into one of two categories: 1) those who are interested in pursuing creative writing of one ilk or another in their college career, and thus must take this course because it is the prerequisite for all the other creative writing courses; and 2) those who are taking it because they need a class in the English area, and have signed up because, hey, how hard can something called “Creative Writing” be?

Of the second category, I’ll lose a few of those the first night when I go over the syllabus and my expectations. They’ll realize that (again) I actually expect a fair amount of work and input from them. The rest will stick around, and they will either find that they actually enjoy writing — which means I may see them in another course — or they will come away with (hopefully) a deeper appreciation of the process of writing, even if they never set down another piece of creative writing in their lives.

Of the first category, within that group there will be three sub-categories: 1) the tabla rasa; 2) those who are already writers; 3) those who are “Artists”The first sub-category, the ‘empty slates’, are those who are curious about creative writing, but haven’t really done much of it. They’re curious, and curiosity is a wonderful thing. Some of them will actually become writers — because they’ll play with the poetry, the creative essays, or the fiction we work on in this class, and one or another of the forms will excite their imaginations and make them want to do more writing on their own. And others might find that this isn’t as much fun they thought it was… which is good, actually. Knowing what you’re not interested in doing with your life is a valuable lesson.

The second sub-category — those who are already writers — is a teacher’s favorites (and is also the rarest segment of the class): students who will push me, who will ask questions and challenge what I say, who will demand to know more, who will venture beyond the “I like this” and “I don’t like this” in the workshop sessions and will show nascent critical tools and thinking. They’ll get the most out of the class, because they’ll mine what little store of knowledge I have and use what they can of it. I say they are already ‘writers’ for one simple reason: because they are already writing; because they’ve produced short stories and poetry and essays all on their own already; because something within them forces them to smash their thoughts onto paper so they can see the patterns of their thoughts. Frankly, they would be writers even without this class — no writer needs to take ‘classes’ in writing: you learn by writing, by reading and dissecting the writing of other people, and by getting critical feedback on your own work and using it to refine your skills. It’s possible to do that on your own just as effectively as it can be done in a classroom setting. And yes, I actually do say that in my class…

And then there’s the third sub-category: the “Artists.” This is sometimes the largest category in the class…. These are the students who want to “have written and published.” They don’t really have an interest in writing; they have an interest in seeing their name on the cover of a book. These are the same people who might also want to be rock stars or starring actors or famous painters. Unfortunately, they don’t actually have the inclination to learn music or take acting lessons or understand how to mix paint. They have the mistaken impression that no work is required of creative efforts, that ‘art’ flows unbidden and whole from some secret well inside the ‘artist’ and the Artist either has that native talent or they don’t. They feel that the ‘revise and revise and revise again’ process is somehow dirty, and that to ‘write to sell your work’ is even dirtier.

They’ve been infected by academics and previous teachers in elementary and high school who, not being writers themselves and thus not actually understanding the process, have told them that real artists are ‘inspired’ and ‘suffer for their work’ and ‘write from the heart.’ They’ve been sold the Romantic Vision of Art — that the Muse must come and visit the Artist in his or her lonely garret and strike the Artist with Divine Inspiration, at which point the Artist falls into a mad fit and produces a True Work of Genius. They’ve been convinced that if something is Not- Dense-and-Difficult it’s also Not Good.

When I inform them that work from the heart generally requires additional editing, they don’t believe or understand me. When I tell them that clarity is a quality to be desired, they raise their eyebrows. They’re the ones you can see shaking their heads during the workshop critiques, because their story is pure and from the depths of their immense teenage angst and “it really happened that way” and therefore must be perfect… as is. They’ve been taught, all along, that it’s the reader who must make the effort to appreciate the story. The reader must do the work of understanding the story rather than the writer doing the work of making the story understandable and entertaining in the first place.

Because they equate writing with Capital-A Art, they wait for Inspiration. They wait for the Muse. They spend nearly all their time waiting.My job is to destroy that Romantic Vision and begin to undo the infection of former teachers and past perceptions. I tell them that to be a writer, they must make writing a dirty habit: they must apply their butt to a chair and their fingers to a keyboard and put down words each and every day whether they feel inspired or not, and then when they’re done they have to go back and polish the words and eviscerate the bad ones and create more good ones. I tell them they have to work at creative writing as they would work at any job, that writing is work and research and revision…

Some of them will hear me, and they might actually one day become writers. To me, that’s when I succeed as a teacher: when they come into my class an “Artist” and they leave as something else.

But I don’t always succeed, of course. Others might get the message later, from some other teacher or mentor, or they may never get it. Some will remain ‘authors-in-their-mind’ and they will never produce anything. They’ll be the people who come up to me at conventions or at signings, tell me about this great idea they have for a book, and how one day they’ll write it… when they have time. I always smile at them and suggest that they should start now — go home and put those first sentences down, and write a bit more of it every day until it’s done.

And they’ll smile back at me and shake their heads, because they know that’s not how it’s done.

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  1. 1. S.C. Butler

    Great differentiation between Writers and Artists. It’s all about the work, isn’t it? When I was in school we used to describe the difference as being between people who wanted to write vs people who wanted to be writers, but you put it much better.

  2. 2. Steve Leigh

    Early on, I would patiently wait for the Muse before I started writing. I did a lot more waiting than writing in those days. I finally figured out that the Muse would eventually show up if I just started typing…

  3. 3. Tobias Buckell

    I meet so many potential readers who’ve been turned away from reading b/c of the ‘it has to be hard’ routine shoved down their throats by academia and high school. I was just talking to someone in high school who was quite intrigued with the whole idea that I, as a writer, despised the whole theory.

    My stepdad said he started my book 4 or 5 times but couldn’t get past the whole idea that he was supposed to be looking for great themes and symbols. He’s about half way through now because the rest of the family was like ‘wtf are you talking about, just read the damn thing and have fun.’ He’s enjoying it now that he’s just let go of trying to hunt for meanings that are hidden in the text and is just enjoying the adventure the characters are on.

    *sigh*

  4. 4. Mike Brotherton

    I liked the point about how the writers sub-category could make it on their own without formal classes. I always believed that about myself, and focused almost exclusively on science and engineering in college so my transcript makes me look a lot more one-dimensional than I really am. Formal writing courses can certainly help and be fun and worth taking, but they’re not *necessary* for the real writers.

    I believe in the Muse, a little, except that the Muse visits a lot more often than most people realize and if you pay attention to your environment and your reaction to it, you’re never short good ideas. If you live a rich, interesting life and reflect on things, the Muse is already there and waiting for YOU to realize it.

  5. 5. peacerenity

    AMEN. big fan of this post. i totally agree. some people (who are probably “artists”) have called me an “anti-intellectual”. the point i want to make to people is that a book is good based on its plot and its characters and its ability to enthrall and affect readers, not on pithy little word games or “experimentalism” that only english majors would enjoy (and i say this as a potential english major).

  6. 6. Jigs

    Frequently I do not put up on blogs, but I would like to say that this put up truly fecrod me to do so! seriously great post

Author Information

Stephen Leigh

Stephen Leigh (aka S.L. Farrell) is a Cincinnati author with 25 novels and several dozen short stories published. Booklist called his Cloudmages trilogy "Good enough to cast in gold." He teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University, and is a frequent speaker to writers groups. Visit site.

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