Writing is art. Writers are artists.
As a child, I was taught to value the fine arts. A typical Saturday afternoon might include watching Salome with my father. My father also taught me to love impressionists like Manet and Renoir. Even the books my parents owned were works of art--they were part of a book of the month club that sent gold-leafed, leather-bound editions of various classics. I spent my childhood flipping through the gold-leafed pages of ancient mythology books, Ben-Hur, and the Talisman. The books were works of art on the outside, but I didn't think of them as works of art on the inside.
I didn't think about writing as art again until writing my first poem, an ode to the color green that I was assigned to write in third grade. My mom stenciled green leaves around the poem and framed it so that my grandparents could hang it on their wall. It was strange to me that poetry could be framed and hung like a painting, and that words and drawings could coexist side by side as one cohesive work of art.
It was the first time I realized that writing might, in fact, be an art.
Writing is also a craft. It's hard to separate these two since they are used almost interchangeably in the English language. When I think of a craft, I think of trades like woodworking or glassblowing. Or, I could conjure any of the following: crafting, arts and crafts, or craft night, all of which connote scrapbooking, quilting, soapmaking, and all sorts of epic Pinterest fails that I've had over the years.
Why is it that we call cooking an art but writing a craft? Both involve lots of practice and following many recipes before we get to the stage where we can improvise comfortably. Improvising too early on can result in unresolved plot points, collapsed cakes, and grease fires.
Fine art is collapsing into the world of craft night. A prime example of this is the new trend in drunk paint nights. If you've never been to a paint night, it goes something like this: drink wine. Invite one friend who is actually an artist so that she can follow the directions before the teacher has even given them. Try desperately to follow the teacher's exact instructions as you sink deeper into your wine stupor, hoping that you too can produce a slight variation of the exact same painting. During the only paint night I've been to, I drowned my sorrows in some nachos and pinot in the hopes that no one would notice that my silhouetted pine trees resembled black clouds and my ripples in the water looked more like giant eels. My birds were as large as my eels, rendering the entire scene a bit closer to a post-apocalyptic depiction of radioactive water than a tranquil Adirondack lake.
We use the words "art" and "craft" so loosely that even abstract concepts have become synonymous with these two words. We can craft a Tinder profile or a cover letter, and the verb would be acceptable in both cases. So what truly makes writing a craft if it covers so many genres? At what point does it become art?
One writer put it quite nicely: crafting is something that can be taught. I can be taught to make a tea-stained doily. I can be taught how to make a pot on a pottery wheel. But once we trascend into making something out of nothing--writing without a template, or art with a blank canvas and no guidance--that's when it becomes art.
I'm not sure I fully agree with that, since people can also be taught to make something out of nothing. The difference, to me, is that art is something we practice for years--and this is where we get into the tricky snare of art, craft, and skill all merging--and that the act of dedication and continued, focused practice is what makes something an art and someone an artist.
I've struggled a lot lately with how to introduce my art to other people. To call myself a writer is to say I get paid to do it. To call myself an artist is to say that maybe I don't get paid to do it, but that I take it pretty seriously (or at least delude myself into thinking I've put some serious work in). Calling oneself an artist comes with a bit of pretension, because it presumes that we know what art really is, and people get pretty touchy about a word that is so overused and has already lost a lot of its meaning.
The interesting trend that I've noticed this year is that only other artists call me an artist. Other writers call me a writer. The rest of the world doesn't see it that way. We either get paid to do something or we don't. I've talked about this a lot in an earlier post, but I think it's worth reiterating: if you think you're an artist, you better put the work in. You better be ready to explain how you've made nothing into something, and to explain how writing is different from crocheting.
The key difference, in my opinion, is that writers often view writing as the single most important thing we will ever do in our lives, as do a lot of artists. This is a dramatic and romanticized way of viewing it, but it's true for most writers I know. When I wrote the ode to the color green, I knew I'd found the thing I was supposed to do. It's the only thing I've ever been certain of. To me that's a pretty big deal, because life is just one giant knot of uncertainty that we're constantly untangling. At the end of the day, writing is conjoined twin that I would die without, an organ that I need to live. When you find something that makes you feel that way, then you can say you are an artist.
Being an artist is about tapping into a life force, and then practicing that life force. But the romanticization is still grounded in some realism; even in fantasy, wizards must practice wielding their magic. Sure, writing does involve some inherent talent, but it's still just as much about practicing using those gifts as any trade or craft. Perhaps this is why I have had so many failed crafting adventures--I cannot tap into any grander purpose when I embroider, but I feel it when I throw words on the page, then arrange and rearrange and remove and move and cut and add, which are all unsexy words for things we must do when we make art.