Exploring the art of prose


Toward Inspiration as Craft

By Mercedes Lucero

Until recently, I had a very clear notion of what craft meant. It meant technique. Literary devices. Structure. Figurative language. Setting. Point of view. In short, it meant what happens on the page. It meant careful construction.

In our contemporary understanding in English, craft is almost always relegated to technique. Yet, it was not until around the time of the Industrial Revolution that we even begin to see the word “technique” appear in relation to the process of “making” in the English language. The influence of manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution has led us to believe that craft and craftsmanship are synonymous with machine-like methods of formal construction. This influence, however, has largely reduced our understanding of craft.

Scholars and poets such as Sherod Santos and Tim Mayers have entered into this conversation concerning creative writing craft. Frequently, they return to Martin Heidegger’s theories on thinking to arrive at an understanding of the defining characteristics of craft, partly because Heidegger aptly compares craftsmanship to the process of poetry. For Heidegger, the objective of craftsmanship was not just “to gain facility in the use of tools” or “gather knowledge about the use of customary forms of the things he is to build.” Craft was also a matter of discovering “the hidden riches” of the wood and understanding one’s own “relatedness to wood.” If craft is also meant to focus on the writer’s “relatedness,” then it almost inherently brings into focus the idea of thinking about one’s own relationship to writing. Craft is not only about what happens on the page.

Some of these conversations have begun to take place. I only wish that texts like Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda’s anthology The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind had been introduced to me alongside learning about the construction of a villanelle. How does my identity inform my creative writing process? I cannot think of one creative writing class I have taken where I was asked to consider my own “relatedness” to language as an important element of my craft. For the most part, it is something that is assumed.

Thinking about creative writing means thinking about craft as not solely limited to acquired skills and techniques but also as constituted in a creative process that involves the inward turn, the understanding of the self. It involves a process of being “in spirit.” To put it simply, it involves inspiration.

With its roots in divinity, inspiration now, “is normally interpreted as emanating not from above but from below, from the subconscious.” Janet Burroway describes inspiration in this manner writing that it is “a gift from the subconscious to the conscious mind.” Robert Olen Butler’s approach to writing in From Where You Dream, one that Burroway has described as “method writing,” approaches creative writing from the unconscious. For Butler, writing happens not so much on a technical level, but “from the place where you dream.” What happens in the mind is as important as what happens on the page.

Of course, relying on inspiration is highly individualized. Carl Fehrman examines this debate in his book Poetic Creation: Inspiration or Craft noting that “[t]he psychological differences between individual artists’ manner of conceiving and shaping their material vary so greatly that no one theory of stages can embrace the whole of this complex phenomenon.” Since the conventional wisdom suggests that inspiration cannot be taught, we are left with what can. We are left with technique. What results, is a notion of craft that redirects its focus to literary devices, aesthetics, and imitation.

The question we should be asking ourselves is how we can expand our notion of craft. Santos asks “what do you know beforehand when you sit down to write a poem?” How can we learn or teach what it means to be both a creative and a writer? We do a disservice to ourselves as artists if we do not also uphold inspiration as much as we do technique. If we do not study and develop an acumen of inspiration.

Inspiration as craft is about our relationship to language. It is thinking about what happens to our imagination before we ever put pen to paper. What is going on in this moment? How do we develop this? How do we treat this process as a skill that can be honed and developed in the same way that we might hone and develop a single sentence? We do writing exercises to develop our craft. What might inspiration exercises look like? We should seek, as craft critic Tim Mayers suggests, to “discover that meanings can be made to fit words, not just the other way around.”

Next week, I am taking my creative writing students to an art museum. We’ll certainly use this to discuss ekphrasis, but the goal is also an exercise in inspiration, a moment just as integral to the creative process. I want to guide my writing students toward inspiration as craft. Before they ever begin writing, I want to place them in a precise moment in which they may be drawn to painting or sculpture and find themselves wondering: Why those colors? Why is her hand placed right there? Why am I enchanted by this? What does this say about me?

Works Cited

Butler, Robert Olen. From Where You Dream: the Process of Writing Fiction. Edited by Janet Burroway.

Dawson, Paul. Creative Writing and the New Humanities.

Fehrman, Carl. “Periodicity and the Stages of Literary Creativity.” Poetic Creation: Inspiration or Craft.

Heidegger, Martin. “Lecture I.” What is Called Thinking?

Mayers, Tim. “(Re) Writing Craft.” College Composition and Communication.

Santos, Sherod. “Eating the Angel, Conceiving the Sin: How Does Poetry Think?” A Poetry of Two Minds.

MERCEDES LUCERO is the author of Stereometry (Another New Calligraphy 2018) and the chapbook, In the Garden of Broken Things (Flutter Press 2016).  She is the 2017 winner of the Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award for Poetry and her writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, The Pinch, Heavy Feather Review, and Curbside Splendor among others. You can see more of her work at www.mercedeslucero.com.