Can You Get Better at Art?

“But the artist must employ the symbols in use in his day and nation, to convey his enlarged sense to his fellow-men. Thus the new in art is always formed out of the old.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Art

Before we begin, I want to point out that everything I plan to highlight in Learning How to Learn Fiction has been said before. I’m not preaching anything new here, other than by the happy accident of compiling this information in one place and applying it to a specific subject.

With that out of the way, the next question we should address is one that may not be at the front of our minds but seems to eventually crop up:

Can you get better at art?

I’ll avoid the crude popular comparison, but as you know, everybody has an opinion. Much of what we like about art, be it books, movies, or music, seems to differ between people. So, how is it that we can objectively get better at something that appears to be, by its nature, subjective?

Now, this is the point where a lot of people tend to differentiate between art and craft. And that’s a good enough place for me to start.

Let’s look at something basic: A dinner table.

There are a lot of things we take for granted with a dinner table: That it will stand up on its own without collapsing. That its surface is level enough to support the cups and bowls and plates that are placed on it without spilling wine and spaghetti onto your fine carpet. That it won’t suddenly grow a sharp set of teeth and decide to eat the people who keep putting food on it (well, maybe a writer would want this, but only for their fictional tables).

Those are all aspects of crafting a dinner table that can be objectively graded and agreed on upon. But then things get a little more complicated.

Maybe Barbara wants a table made of finely-polished mahogany. But, of course, Frank, loose-living guy that he is, considers that a bit stuffy. He wants something with a bit more pizzazz–maybe with a funky hexagon shape and blue polka dots. Something that would make Barbara want to vomit.

Which table is better than the other? Are they both still good?

Obviously, we’ve reached the point of personal taste. Good is now beyond whether or not the table serves its basic function.

Now we come to fiction. An easy example–Fifty Shades of Gray, in style and substance, is almost quantifiably light years away from War and Peace. But does that make one better than the other? I’d say yes, but with the caveat that the answer will differ depending on who you ask. 🙂

I’m willing to state that 99.9% of what we write is intended to get something across to another reader. For a lot of non-fiction, that’s an idea, a belief, or set of facts. That’s oversimplifying, but it serves the example. For fiction, what writers are mostly trying to get across is feeling. Authors of fiction want their readers to feel something. To have an emotional response.

So, the questions we find ourselves needing to answer are: Can we get better at, in a sense, controlling our readers so they feel what we want them to feel, no matter what we write about? Are there certain things we can do to bring the reader deeper into our stories so that they’re invested in the characters and the emotions that drive us to write the stories in the first place? The experiences we want to share with others?

To refer to the previous example, are there tools and techniques that can make our dinner table of a book flat and stand on its own?

I think so. That’s why I’m writing this series. And many other students of the written word seem to think so as well. There wouldn’t be a slew of books on writing as a craft if that weren’t the case.

But not only do I think we can get better at art, but I believe we can get better at getting better at art.

Personally, I’ve spent the past eight years reading and taking workshops–making a concerted effort to learn about the writing process as well as elements of fiction that seem to be common in books I’ve read and loved. Bits and pieces have stuck, but most of it has been like the information I crammed in my head in order to pass my tenth-grade chemistry class–gone almost as quickly as it arrived.

In school or for work, we’ve all wasted so much time highlighting books (look, it’s even a feature on every e-reader on the planet!) and cramming for tests. The fact is, these are practically useless when it comes to mastering a skill and making it stick.

I have to assume that the reason you’re reading this and that the reason you write, is to make a career–not to pass a test. And therefore, it would benefit you to truly know and learn things that will increase your chances for success.

I’ve spent the past three years learning what scientists and life-long learners have to say about learning itself and that, my friends, has made all the difference.

My goal is to not just share the methods which these people have discovered and demonstrated, but also how those meta-learning skills can be applied to the craft of writing. I want to help all of us get on the path to mastery so we can free the brilliant stories taking up residence in our heads and, in essence, control each other’s mind and feelings (I know, it sounds a little wrong when I put it that way).

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. It may be familiar ground to many of you, but I promise it will be an eye-opener to some who have never really thought about this before.

So, stay tuned. The next post will deal with probably the most important aspect to getting anything out of the information I’ll be presenting.

Cliffhangers, anyone? 🙂

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the notions of art and craft and how you’ve tried to get better, so please comment below!

-Phillip

7 thoughts on “Can You Get Better at Art?

  1. I think I look at the mechanics of writing, the physical aspects that can be learned, (sentence structure, word choice, pacing, etc.) as craft. For me, “art” is the way the writer turns a phrase (and other abstracts). So for me maybe art is style. It isn’t something that can be taught or learned consciously. It’s just there, though it’s developed over a long period of time.

    How I try to get batter is learn everything I can, both through listening and reading. Then I practice and see what “sticks.” (grin)

    I look forward to this series of posts and to the ensuing book. Now, back to practicing.

    1. I obviously agree with what you’re saying here, Harvey, and think you’re on to something with art being related to style.

      I see it as the way the individual imbues those mechanics with his or her own voice. For instance, we can hear the way Beethoven arranges notes in the C-major scale (the mechanics) is different than how Wagner does it. Or, if we want to stretch the metaphor close to breaking point, the way McDonald’s puts together a patty of ground beef, cheese, and bread vs. In-N-Out or Whataburger. 🙂

      In the end, I’m sold on your idea–wide and frequent listening, reading, and practicing will ensure we’re making the best of our own art.

      Really appreciate the comment! Thank you.

  2. I agree with Harvey, there´s the craft, the mechanics, the rules you need to know and follow before you can break them. Then there´s the art, the writer´s voice, the ¨something¨in how she uses words that sets her apart from other writers. I like to think of it in terms of music, as in hearing a guitar riff and thinking, ´Yup, that´s Eric Clapton´or ´that´s Stevie Ray Vaughn´ (and now you know what music I listen to). In trying to better myself, I like to read like a writer, which is work. When I´m reading, I pay attention to what I like and don´t like about the novel or short story. I try to dissect what appeals to me as a reader and then apply it to my own writing. What´s interesting about that approach is it does lend itself to a writer trying to create her own 50 Shades of Grey rather than the next War and Peace.

    1. Thanks for the detailed comment, Marie! I agree with everything you say here. I’ve only just come to terms with what you mentioned about studying what other writers have done, but only after reading for pleasure first. It was pointed out to me that when we start out reading with a critical eye, we’re going to catch all sorts of flaws because that’s what we’re looking for. Since no written work is perfect, flaws will never NOT be there (dontcha love double negatives? :))

      It’s been a bit of a slog for me on that front because it meant going back to how I used to read before I was a writer. Once I find a book that captivates me, THEN it’s a perfect time to go back and try to figure out the techniques that did so. One of the plusses of this method is that joy I used to find in getting sucked into a book is finally coming back. I can read the ‘supermarket shelf’ authors and realize that they’re all doing something fantastically right.

      1. I remember how you shared your reading notes. It’s a lot of work to read as a writer. I am trying to read first for pleasure and, if I’m captivated by what I read (or not), then go back and review the parts that made an impression on me. That’s where writing book reviews comes in handy: they’re a good way for me to record what I liked and didn’t like. And, yes, there’s something to learn from and enjoy in supermarket shelf writers. That reminds me of a writing mentor I had once. Nice guy. He had been published but I could only find one novel and had to buy it through Amazon. It was a classic crime thriller, his hook being that the protagonist was a mountain climber so all of the action took place in the Colorado mountains in winter. It was pretty interesting and one of those “beach reads” that is easily consumed in a day or two. Yet, I’ve never found any other writing by him (and I never asked). This was almost 15 years ago. It’s always perplexed me how some writers who have just as much skill and imagination as a best selling author never manage to break through past their first published novel. I suppose that’s where agents and publishers come in. Everyone wants a bestseller so if your novel has only modest success, the agents et al. drop you. Sad.

        1. Yeah, always sad when talented folks leave this writing gig after a book or two. I’m sure there are many valid reasons, but I can’t help but feel we’re all poorer without their unique vision and stories.

  3. […] started out as a comment on this post by Phillip McCollum. Then I couldn’t post it for some reason, and I realized it was really too long to work as a […]

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