Artists and Artisans

Catherine Carberry

In her lecture “Why Write?” Zadie Smith emphasizes the honor—and the drudgery—of the craft of writing by comparing it to the work of an artisan. My undergraduate students, many of who major in things like Business or Supply Chain Management, argue that creative writing is worthless in today’s economy. In an atmosphere where writing is considered indulgent, many writers are quick to clarify that they have ambitions beyond what others label as a hobby. Conversely, as Smith mentions, some writers identify as such out of an inflated sense of ego, latching onto the romantic allure of the word and the implication that they, more so than others, have stories worth being told. We can call ourselves writers and expound on the challenges of our craft, but only if we acknowledge that thousands of other people are claiming the same level of creativity and unique perspective. Instead, the honest call of a writer is akin to that of a craftsman. In her lecture, Smith compares the work of a writer to that of a builder of chairs. The public may buy mass-marketed chairs, identical and flimsy plastic models, but still we labor to create works that are sturdy, relevant, and beautiful. Why?

The Gallery at Artisans Square, Snug Cove, Bowen Island, BC.Smith’s point reminded me of a lecture I heard at the 2013 Tin House Writers Workshop, a talk on failure by author Anthony Doerr. When I attended Doerr’s lecture, I expected to hear the aphorisms and heartening statistics that usually accompany writerly pep talks: that Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind was rejected over thirty times before being published, that the initial manuscript of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was panned by early readers. Instead, Doerr posed the craft of writing in terms of “homemade” versus “store-bought” fiction, and he reminded the audience of the pride that comes with striving to craft strong prose. Doerr’s analogy related to the Halloween costumes of his youth; at a costume party, he was the lone DIY knight amidst a crowd of store-bought superheroes. The Ikea chair or Superman costume will always be popular, so what keeps us from writing “store-bought” fiction, or not writing at all?

When Brooklyn transplants boast of their homemade pickles, when potato chips and pasta sauce are marketed as “artisan,” the power of the word may be diluted. An artisan, as Smith and Doerr remind us, labors over each product, strives not only for functionality and relevance, but also for excavating the beauty in an ordinary object, for reminding the consumer or audience of the piece’s highest potential. A writer’s task is not romantic, as so many of us know. To write is to labor over each sentence until we create a work that we hope may convey our own infatuation with the elasticity of language. To remind readers, and ourselves, of the connections we may forge with absolute strangers, of the art of our drudgery.

Catherine Carberry lives in Ohio, where she is an MFA candidate at Bowling Green University and an Assistant Editor of Mid-American Review. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Word Riot, Necessary Fiction, New Madrid, and Cream City Review. She writes book reviews for The Rumpus. Catherine’s story, “Dovehouse,” is featured in issue 298.1.

Photograph by David Stanley.