Palimpsest onLine!'s Professional Writers at Work
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Last updated April 25, 1999; first published to the web: November 22, 1998.
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The Cardinal Trait of a Writer
- Cyril Connolly
In that sense, we're locating where we are in the values of this time and place. It is the crossroads that the sociologist C. Wright Mills referred to as the intersection of biography and history. Every moment is both an individual, private one and a cultural, public one.
Being too aware of this could more likely lead to paralysis than writing. But writing involves the faith that there are the right words for the moment, words that can transcend the limitations of generational communication and outlive the cultural moment in which they were born. An awareness of craft makes this possible.
This applies as well to the craft of characterization, which is the sinew of writing.
I am always more successful with a writing project when there is a conscious social theme or a set of subthemes underlying the work. This is because the social themes provide the context for the tension experienced by the characters, and serve as the driving force behind their behavior. The values of social institutions transmitted culturally thus are the internal and external environments of characters. Even characters such as Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Ellison's Invisible Man and Dostoevskyâs Underground Man define themselves in relationship to the dominant culture. Indeed, they are defined especially so in reaction to it.
So how does this assist in the craft of characterization?
Consider how the cultural milieu of your characters sets into motion their sense of craft, for it is a universal that humans have craft. Every habit, obsessive/compulsive behavior, scratched itch, work routine, fetish, truth-telling, obfuscation, lie, theft, or cheat is informed by craft, and how we engage in these behaviors, and more importantly why, is informed by culture.
Anorexia is a late-twentieth-century Western (perhaps United States-ian) disease. Imagine how rich is the opportunity for character description and development from the effects of this single cultural phenomenon on the perception of characters affected by it.
In addition to providing more wealth of detail than any one writer would ever need, the benefit of pursuing social themes in the craft of characterization is that it puts you in the world. That is, it transports you from the solitary and often lonely work of writing into an engagement with life, giving your effort the possibility of meaning. To do this, the facts have not only to be right - which is necessary and sufficient for nonfiction - but also feel right. It is when the facts feel right in new and previously uncomfortable ways that fiction can create new social paradigms. This is the literary tradition to which Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, and Alice Walker belong.
It is the combination of that sense of meaning and the growing awareness of your own craft that will give you respect for yourself as a writer. Every habit, obsessive/compulsive behavior, work routine, fetish, truth-telling, lie, theft, and cheat, every scratched itch, is something to pay attention to, for we write to find ourselves. And by the way, pay attention to your dreams - and your past.
My grandfather was a blacksmith and farrier by trade. At this moment I'm looking at his anvil hammer, whose five-pound head was made of cold-rolled steel that has been mashed and bent up on one end from the force of thousands upon thousands of blows. His anvil chorus fed a family of ten in the Great Depression. As difficult as it is to get my mind around that fact, it is not what I will remember best about him.
What I remember is when I was 15 years old and accidentally snapped in two a power-takeoff shaft for the hay crimper. I pulled the hay crimper into the yard and just stared at it, knowing I was in trouble.
My grandfather, who was 81 years old, came over and asked me what was wrong. I showed him and he didnât say anything, just fired up the forge and welded it so well, with such a fine tolerance, that it slipped perfectly inside its sleeve. Then he and I were the only people in the world who ever knew that it was broken once. In time I was the only one who knew, until now.
It was the one time in my life that I witnessed him at work in his trade, and I wish I could remember more: about how he could tell by the glow of coals that the heat was right, just how long the broken ends needed to be in the fire, how to hammer the shaft into one square piece so it would fit inside the sleeve, and tempering of the steel so it would never snap again.
That I canât remember my grandfather's craft has made me pay more attention to others. My father-in-law told me recently that what he remembered about his father was the first thing he did when he got home from work. After a full day of carpentry, he sharpened all the saws, because there were no power tools - so he was ready for the next day's work. And with every handsaw cut he left half of the pencil line, on each piece of lumber.
So pay attention to how people define themselves by their craft, including how you define yourself while you write. And remember that needing to write isn't a life-style choice. It's like getting a lawnmower for your birthday. It's that kind of gift. There are connotations. The willingness to accept the connotations is the cardinal trait of a writer.
Copyright © 1998 Ray Petersen, all rights reserved
Ray Petersen teaches political science and history at Jefferson Community College in Watertown, New York, and frequently offers local writing workshops. His first novel, Cowkind, was published in 1996 by St. Marin's Press, which nominated it for the PEN/Hemingway and PEN/Faulkner Awards. His second novel, True North, is forthcoming in 1999.