“The two types” of writers?

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith

I was just linked to an article by Mary Popova on author Zadie Smith, and her comments on the Psychology of the Two Types of Writers.  It’s a great read, mainly to gain an understanding of how Zadie herself works, and how she sees the authors who work in a different manner than herself, in creating a novel.

Though I enjoyed the article, I must admit to my own subconscious red flags waving as soon as I saw the title of the piece.  Not long after I dived in, I found:

Smith begins by proposing the two psychological profiles into which all writers fall — a dichotomy reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s hedgehog-versus-fox classification system of writerly personalities.

Reading further, I confirmed my own suspicions: That the two psychological profiles that Smith proposes encompasses “all writers”… do not happen to include me.

So, I would respectfully like to submit that there is another, equally valid psychological profile for writers, the profile which does, in fact, encompass writers like me: That of the Craftsman.

There is a reasonable amount of space between Zadie’s archetypes, the Macro Planner and the Micro Manager—that is, between the writer obsessed with pages and pages of notes, thorough and detailed outlining, often starting at any point in the story and working backwards, forwards, up, down and sideways, multiple-editing and revising, and choosing between multiple endings depending on their mood of the day—and the writer who sits down, writes the first words, and thereafter goes into some sort of a zen-like creative trance, not to exit until the last words come out.  (These are my words, not Zadie’s, but they somewhat glibly sum up my impression of both types.)

Zadie counts herself as being the latter type of writer… what I, personally, tend to call “Arr-teests” with a significant show of teeth upon pronunciation… and she admits to not being able to fully understand the former, whom, I imagine, she sees as sucking much of the creativity out of the writing process (and who, most likely, would similarly consider her a flake).

But there is room between these two archetypes for the writer who is comfortable within their craft… who is capable of advanced planning, knowing at the beginning essentially what their work will yield, but leaving it up to their relative skills, and a bit of serendipity, to guide the final shape of the work.

This is the Craftsman.  Compared to the Craftsman, I would liken the other archetypes as being akin to an Engineer—uber-precise—and a Sculptor—guided by their muse.  The Craftsman neither worries about being precise, nor allows pure artistry to guide them; they know what they want to create, and that’s what they create.

chairIn the past, I’ve compared the kind of work I do to that of a carpenter creating a chair.  A carpenter making a chair knows the basic structure of a chair, so he will decide what kind of chair he wants to make, collect the appropriate materials for it, and apply his skills to the familiar steps of making that chair. He may be making a simple dining room chair, an ornate living room chair, or a Throne of Swords, but he trusts in his innate knowledge of woodwork/metalworking/upholstery to make that chair.

When I create a story, I decide at the beginning what kind of story I want to write.  I take notes, not heavily detailed, but enough to keep me on track , to make sure I remember aspects about the characters and settings that I consider most pertinent to the story overall.  I outline the story, from start to finish, so I know what’s supposed to happen at every story point.  I make any changes to the story or characters in that outline—again, nothing heavily detailed, but just enough to make clear what I want to do.

Once that’s done, I start writing, from the beginning.  Following the outline and occasionally double-checking my notes, I trust to my wordsmithing skills to come up with the words I need to describe each moment, to flesh out a character, to create powerful dialogue, to illustrate a moment.  I don’t need to fret obsessively over my words; I know what I want to bring across to the audience, and the appropriate words and phrases just come naturally.  My knowledge of the writing process allows me to keep working, or to stop comfortably at any time, and come right back to where I left off without a break in flow; to break the story where it needs to be broken; to monitor the pace and energy; to edit as I go to fix typos, grammatical glitches or sentence structure; and to end the story where it is supposed to end.

When I’m done, I have a product that is carefully crafted from my original intent and design, executed with the quality of my craft, and able to stand up against any other product, whether engineered from a dozen moleskines or created while under a trance.  When I’m done, I know I’m done, and I’m confident to show that book to anyone at that point.

The work of a craftsman isn’t overly dramatic, ornate or miraculous; it’s quite literally a product of his innate experience, skill, care and patience.  And if he’s a good craftsman, his work should stand up against the most incredible works produced by engineers or artists… not as a highly-engineered work, or a fine sculpture, but as a considered and well-made creation, built to do exactly what it does, and do it well, made by someone who knows his trade inside and out.

So, that is the best description of myself as a writer: The confident and capable craftsman, and one who (I’m not ashamed to point out) has turned out sixteen novels in the past two decades.  This is no reflection on the profiles Zadie has outlined, nor a claim that my profile is better than hers or any other; just that it exists, and it’s as significant as those profiles she describes.  And another area where Zadie and I differ, is that I do not assume that these three profiles are the only profiles that fit a writer—I believe that there are certainly many more profiles, many more reasons, and many more kinds of people who write, and could describe their own profile at least as well as I have mine.

Perhaps some authors (or readers) would read this, and decide that my work was somehow inferior to others’ without all the histrionics applied therein.  I would point out that this world is full of writers who are capable of writing without histrionics, and produce high-quality, award-winning and consumer-beloved material on a regular basis.  I would point out that there is plenty of room in this world for the Craftsman, the people who know their skills and apply them to their craft, confident of what will come out at the end.  I would also point out that there’s little value in an artist’s muse-guided conception of a chair, or an engineer’s construction of same… that no one would be comfortable sitting in.

And that, dear reader (all six or so of you) is what’s really important: Not what kind of writer I am; but whether or not anyone bothers to read my work.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m a Craftsman, a Planner or a Manager.  Only readers matter.  Without readers, I’m someone who wastes a lot of time in pointless effort with no reason or reward.  I might as well be spending my evenings drinking myself into a stupor (and I’d be about as satisfied with my efforts come the morning).  Without readers, all of us writers are just spinning our tiny, squeaky wheels.

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