Someone, at some time, said something like, what we criticize in others is what we know of ourselves. This explains my deep and abiding loathing of Ann Rice novels. They don’t end, they just stop.
This is a problem that I have in my own stories, whether it’s a chapter, a story, or the end of a novel. I am terrible at endings. Horrible, awful, no good. I don’t want to say good-bye to my characters; I don’t want the story to end. So, instead, I just cut the thread and stop. Sometimes it works out, and the effect is eerie, or romantic, or pleasantly ambiguous. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out so well, and the effect is annoying. A story is like sex: it’s bad manners to leave the reader unsatisfied, unless that is the point of the scene.
And how does one negotiate that? There are degrees of separation between writer and reader. One can try to telegraph that a plot will have loose ends, that characters will have unresolved issues, that some things simply will not be explained, but the contract is written within the story, and the reader doesn’t know the terms until they are already being executed.
This is why Joan Didion said that writing is the most egotistical art form. Although, personally, I would say craft, not art. But, then, I usually default to craft, not art. Is a sentence well-crafted, or is it artful? Who is to say?
My own approach is very workmanlike. I apply the hammer to the nail until it is almost flush with the surface, then I sink it with a nail-set. Sand and polish, voila, Bob’s your uncle. Writing is no more artistic than roofing my house, or building a deck, or repairing the dresser. So, does that make a good roofer an artist, or a writer a craftperson?
The answer, for me, is yes.
Art is craft elevated beyond what could possibly be expected. An apprentice becomes a journeyman, becomes a master. At any level, the work might be taken beyond the expected, beyond craft, become something singular and unique. It doesn’t happen every time, and reaching that level takes diligence, persistence, and work.
Think of Bach’s Chaconne, for solo violin. One instrument expressing the entire range of human emotion, weeping and laughing, yet perfectly mathematical. The purest expression of artistic genius distilled into wood and string, evoked by a mass of cells combined into a bilaterally symmetrical, upright, carbon-based life-form. Look into the cells of both violin and violinist, and there are atoms decomposing, moving always towards entropy, bonds collapsing into heat and light. Fire.
We are all made of fire. In our bones, in our blood, in our brains, we are made of fire. All life is an infinity of suns going nova. And that is the Chaconne. That is the roof of the Mary Chapel in Westminster. Rodin’s Caryatid.
I think that art may be Zen Buddhism. You cannot seek it; instead, you toil towards the opposite, the abnegation, and achieve art by not looking directly at it.
I am only an egg. I have no hope of achieving art. I can only work diligently and persistently at my craft, and hope that the genius loci takes pity on me. Which makes me think of the Wayfaring Stranger, and now I have an ear-worm. Ack.
Speaking of which, Emmylou Harris does a decent version, but the one that makes me cry is Dolly Parton’s. I love Dolly.