Craft, Art, Secrecy, Sharing

Posted: February 13th, 2014 under Craft.

There’s a sensible article about Craft and Art  by Theodora Goss  on the SFWA website.   Goss, an experienced creative writing teacher, has a somewhat different angle on it than I do, but we see both pretty much the same way.   My way of saying it:  Craft makes art possible.   Art gives craft life.   But in the story I’m working on now,  which happens to be partly about craft (in knitting) and art (ditto) there’s something more I believe is important.

In history,  craft guilds often kept secrets, especially from outsiders.   Their secret knowledge–how to get a brilliant red in wool, how to join thin pieces of wood to make a box stronger, how to make paper–had value–it ensured their control of a body of knowledge, and hence the ability to control the profit from that knowledge.   Individuals might also keep their secrets–painters had individual, sometimes secretly held ways of mixing particular pigments, using varnishes, etc.  Past the age of guilds, both individuals and corporations thrived by holding secrets close, preventing others from copying the work that made their profit.   And all those secrets hidden…are things that can be learned by copying, by spying, or–if the inventer chooses–can be taught directly to someone else.   In other words, all those secrets belong in the realm of craft, not art.  Craft is both knowledge and skill…but knowledge is the deepest root of it.

Goss says art cannot be taught, only craft.   I think she’s right.   Art is part of the individual…if someone with the craft extends the work to art, then that extension comes from something the individual puts into it.  What is that “something?”   Now we’re on shaky ground,  one foot on theology and one foot on psychology.   Because it’s something mental/spiritual/psychological in the individual that results in art.   It’s not craft or lack of it.  It’s not a profit motive or lack of it…artists and writers have produced brilliant work–unquestionably art–for money (and lots of it.)   It’s in the individual.

Goss comes close, I think, in this sentence:  “Both Woolf and Orwell make stylistic choices, write the way they write, because of what they’re focusing on, because of their convictions about reality.”    Narrowing that down, I would say that the stylistic choices are not what distinguishes art from the craft behind it: many people can learn to word-wrangle very well.   The art is elsewhere:  it arises because “their convictions about reality” suffuse their writing.   And here we go farther into the shaky bog, hoping not to sink.  Because every writer has convictions about reality, and those convictions do affect the writing.   Yet not all writers produce art as well as craft.

We can start by admitting that imperfect craft–shoddy workmanship–cannot produce art.   (Or, “not good art” if you’re feeling generous. )    It’s easy to tell why some paintings/sculptures/musical works/written works do not achieve the status of art…they lack too much craft.

What about the others, the competent-in-craft writers whose books may be enjoyable on a dull afternoon, but, in the long run, migrate to the shelves you don’t reach often, and are finally discarded for lack of storage space?   You can re-read them a few times without wincing.  There’s nothing specifically wrong with them.  But they don’t grab your mind and heart and bring you back again and again.

You don’t, in other words, connect…with what?  The book?  Yes.  The characters?  Yes.  And behind the book and the characters, the writer.  Aha! Yes…the writer has managed to pour enough of the writer’s own heart (not just mind) and passion (not just thoughts, but feelings) about the characters, the place, the events being written, into the book that you are emotionally moved, not just once, but repeatedly.

The writer is not just demonstrating the techniques of good writing–as a craftsperson always does–but as an artist shares a vision, using every technique of craft to help you, the reader, participate in that vision.  The story comes alive in your mind, and you become a co-creator as read, your entire brain working to build up the vision the writer had first, and gave you the clues to generate.

As readers, we do that with any text, to some extent:  “He bit into the apple.”  Those who have bitten into an apple will respond by imagining the feel, the amount of resistance to his teeth, the slight graininess of the flesh, the apple being either juicy or mushy.    We interpret in the light of our own experience; we “see” and “hear” at lease some of what’s written.   The better the craft of writing, the more vividly meaning is conveyed, the easier it is to understand.  But many texts, in fiction as well as nonfiction, offer a shallow experience–refreshing as wading in a cool stream on a hot day, yet nothing like swimming in the ocean.   The surface, the shallow depth, is well-conveyed–concrete details, pleasantly varied prose.

Meanwhile, the writer remains concealed.   Anyone with sufficient craft can write “He bit into the apple.”   Anyone can write “The steak sizzled.”   Anyone with sufficient craft can write entire, perfectly correct, competent, and interesting  paragraph after paragraph about anything without revealing anything much about the writer.

Art requires revealing  the artist’s unique perspective…leaving the far safer concealment of the craftsman for the risks of exposure.    Saying not what is expected, known, taught as part of the craft, but what comes from the artist’s own deepest beliefs and longings.   It cannot be taught, because it’s not a technique or a trick or a method.   It’s the individual taking the risk of sharing the most dangerous thing–the truth of the artist’s self–with those the artist does not know–may never know–and who may reject everything that artist is.    All a teacher can do is provide a space, permission, for a student whose craft has developed to go beyond craft alone.

In music,  the good teachers–like our choir director–tell students “Don’t just sing/play the notes.   Express the music. ”    For someone still struggling with the craft, this is intimidating…if you have no “musical idea” about the music other than “too many notes too fast” and “OMG, there’s a key change–what–?”  you cannot express the music.   You can, at best, sing the notes.  But it isn’t music–it is not the art of music–until you go beyond, into the music itself, feeling it, reacting to it, and then singing (or playing) with everything you know, everything you feel, without protecting yourself, risking whatever may come to sing or play as if you were the music.   Strong voice or weak, great skill with an instrument or mediocre skill…it will produce music only if you use all of it, freely, without trying to hide your imperfections.

The same is true, in a different craft, with writing.   First comes craft.  Then–with the courage to risk–comes whatever art is in you.   Fear stifles it.  Fear that your art isn’t that big (and it may not be), fear of ridicule or disapproval or actual punishment, fear of failure.   And yet…giving the trained talent, the talent with craft behind it, free rein….letting it run wild where it will and devil take the consequences…is the only possible chance you have to go from craft to art.    Thinking “This will be my shift from craft to art” doesn’t work (in my experience)…thinking of the music itself, the story itself, putting aside thoughts of its audience to give everything to the art….is what may produce art.  (And if not, you’ve got one heckuva piece of excellent craftsmanship.   Which is nothing to be ashamed of–in fact, something to be proud of.)

Craft can be taught.   Art cannot; it can only be recognized.    Craft has “secrets,” techniques and materials that masters of the craft can choose to keep secret or share.   Art has no secret…and that is its secret.





  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — February 13, 2014 @ 2:01 pm


    Saw this and thought you might be interested.

    Christina Blount Presnell
    Shared publicly – 10:10 AM

    Forensic Knitting in Archaeology
    Reconstructing 16th Century Socks
    Knitting the world together in yet another fun way…through time!

    When Spanish Conquistador, Frances Pizzarro, landed in Peru to conquer the Incan empire, he didn’t realize he was bringing them a gift. Thankfully, he remembered to pack his socks.

    Carrie Brezine, a Harvard educated anthropologist specializing in Andean Textiles (wish she was on G+) tells us the story in the latest issue of Piecework magazine. Excavations at Magdalena de Cao Viejo reveal remains of knit stockings typically worn by Spanish soldiers, made with European wool. Further into the excavation, remains were found of stockings in a similar pattern knit with materials indigenous to the Andes, cotton and Alpaca. Thus, we can begin to piece together the introduction of #knitting to the New World. While the native Peruvians weren’t knitters (yet), they were used to using weaving techniques and amazing color combinations, which show up in their version of the stockings found later at the site.

    The Peabody Museum provides more info on this excavation on their website here:

    The best part? The pattern was reverse-engineered and can be found on page 15 of the magazine! You can pick up a copy on the Interweave site here:

  • Comment by Fred — February 13, 2014 @ 2:55 pm


    “The writer is not just demonstrating the techniques of good writing–as a craftsperson always does–but as an artist shares a vision, using every technique of craft to help you, the reader, participate in that vision. The story comes alive in your mind, and you become a co-creator as read, your entire brain working to build up the vision the writer had first, and gave you the clues to generate.”

    Hmmm. Sounds like an elvenhome…in a human incarnation.

  • Comment by Chad Merkley — February 13, 2014 @ 5:05 pm


    In addition to art being about the artists “convictions about reality”, I think it has to include the artist’s questions, doubts, fears and concerns. Rather than just being a a vehicle for expression of belief, art can be about the effort or search for understanding man’s place in the universe. That could be why stories of quests are so common and so important.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 14, 2014 @ 12:43 am


    Fred: That’s a very interesting idea. (Part of brain goes into “slow ponder” mode.)

    Chad: To me, “convictions about reality” include questions, doubts, fears, concerns, etc. The “reality” someone conceives need not be (often is not, I think) a nice tidy package of clearly defined limits and well-lighted corridors…but may be dark, tangled, impenetrable, unknowable in large part. It shows in characterization, in the writer’s understanding of human nature and behavior…and in plot, in the writer’s understanding of action and consequence…and in setting, in the writer’s depth of imagination of both physical and psychological reality.

  • Comment by GinnyW — February 14, 2014 @ 9:03 am


    Trade secrets were what protected inventive discoveries before patent law, or outside of patent law in our mundane present. Some crafts lend themselves to secrets more than others. A process that yields a strong colorfast shade of red can be kept secret, but a particular pattern of stitches is much harder. Another skilled knitter can examine it, and copy the pattern from the finished work.

    The difference between art and craft is much more complex, and I think involves a level of communication, and perhaps challenge, between writer and reader. Certainly the world-building that lies behind fantasy or science fiction writing is a craft of its own, not independent of writing (or drawing in the case of cover art), but at another level than the craft of writing. Some stories strike a chord in the reader though, and some just lie flat. It is the harmonies that the story generates with the reader that change with the second or third or fourth reading, and leave some books front and center with dog-eared pages, and others at the back of the shelf nearly pristine.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 14, 2014 @ 9:53 am


    Wow! Thank you, Jonathan!

  • Comment by GinnyW — February 15, 2014 @ 10:14 am


    Yes, thank you Jonathan for some fascinating links!

  • Comment by patrick — February 18, 2014 @ 11:26 am


    I challenge the thought that art cannot be taught. I readily concede that it is much harder to teach art than craft in part because skill at the craft is helpful in expressing the art. The choir director’s very statement that one must “Express the music.” is an effort to teach the art beyond the craft. To some it comes naturally while others struggle and may never succeed in learning. Perhaps teaching “great art” is rarely observed because that requires a great teacher with high art talent to encounter a student with great potential.

    We come with different capacities for developing different talents. Even though I am no longer young, I still sometimes surprise myself in developing new abilities that I thought were beyond my range earlier in my life.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 18, 2014 @ 11:56 am


    patrick: I think we may have different ideas about what “teaching art” means. A teacher can probably convey (to most students) the difference between craft and art–how to recognize art. But the best teacher with the best student can’t teach that student what his/her art is. I saw an interview with Itzhak Perlman once, on his teaching advanced, talented violin students…and a video of Pavarotti in a master class with singers. As a lesson proceeds from matters of craft toward matters of art, the teacher is reduced to metaphors that are intended to get the student to reach toward his/her own artistic concept…”sing the music” or “feel the meaning” and the like. It is possible to say “Hold the bow like this when playing this kind of passage…” or “Look in the mirror–your vowels are off because you’re tensing your jaw and not opening your mouth…relax…” but it’s not possible to say “To get the most out of this piece, you must introduce the faintest quaver between measure 85 and 87…” If a student is capable of the art of expression-through-the-craft, each one’s interpretation will be unique. It’s that uniqueness that can’t be taught.

    I’ve watched master classes in music, as highly gifted, international star performers, struggle to get that across to their students. These instructors recognize even the hint of an ability to move from craft to art, but they can’t predict initially how that art will be expressed, only that it’s there.

    Certainly in music, what’s needed to produce a great musician/singer is recognized–even the ages at which they should receive which kind of instruction (and as they progress, they need more expert help.) In writing, it’s different. Writing doesn’t offer the quick feedback opportunities of music–and quick feedback is important for instructor-led learning. Teaching the craft end is certainly possible, to a fairly high standard (that it’s not so taught is a disgrace) but beyond that writing is slow, compared to music or gymnastics or sailing.

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — February 18, 2014 @ 8:26 pm


    I am gifted to be in the presence of the possibility of seeing the budding of such talent. One of the top saxophone players in the state is currently teaching a very, very gifted young student who innately feels how to drag a jazz solo opening at an age when the rest of us are only starting to be exposed to figuring out how to play the instrument.

    Twice now while I’ve been around bands that have been in the “big room” doing weddings have stopped by in the restaurant side where he has been sitting in with my friend and the wedding bands have sat around mesmerized hearing him play–professional musicians these. It is a rare and wondrous talent, a marvel to behold.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 18, 2014 @ 10:57 pm


    My own experience like that was both a marvel and a tragedy. One of the barrio kids in the special science enrichment program my thesis director started…on a field trip, brought along his violin and played for us–and every hair on my head and arms stood up. I had heard a lot of classical music by then–including some international stars on their first concert tours. And he was that good…his art, his heart and soul, were already bleeding into the strings and wood and coming out in the music. He should have gone to New York, to Julliard, I thought. What was racing through my mind was “Who do I know who could help raise scholarship money for him?” (Because at the time I was singing in a church choir where several orchestral musicians either sang or played…or both.)

    That night he told us he’d been all-state in orchestra. And he was giving up music for biology because his family needed him to make money to educate his younger siblings…pre-med and medical school would provide it. Music probably wouldn’t (I think it would have but the family thought it wouldn’t.) They had agreed he could come into our program (thus not having a full time job in the summer and working Saturdays during the school year)–that was their contribution and it was a big one–and he would then start supporting younger brothers and sisters to finish school and even get to college.

    It was heartbreaking. And it was character.

    My grandfather, the second oldest boy in his family, left school after third grade to work, but put his youngest brother through college years later. So I understand how decisions are made in poor families. I still get tears in my eyes thinking about the musician we lost back when that boy put his violin away and “joked” that we had heard his last concert. I hope his hands and heart were as skilled and invested in his patients.

  • Comment by patrick — February 19, 2014 @ 10:19 pm


    Elizabeth, I think we are working from different definitions. I consider the giving of hints to cause the flowering of talent to be among the most advanced sort of teaching. But I agree it can be quite different from the techniques used in teaching craft.

    Not that I have any natural talent for that level of teaching. When I assist someone with math (my strongest talent), I have a tendency to solve the student’s problem for them instead of looking for the clue or hint that will let them see their way to find the solution and thus learn how to find those clues for themselves. Advanced math can reach the level of art for those in tune with it.

  • Comment by Judy — February 22, 2014 @ 4:51 pm


    Hello. I’m Fred’s wife, until now participating only by reading this blog over his shoulder, but I’d like to add a couple of notes to the current discussion.

    I was especially intrigued by the origin of Peruvian knitting. In one of my knitting books, it describes the various techniques of knitting, such as English and Continental styles, but unlike any other such book I had run into, it also described the knitting done by Peruvian shepherds. These men carry their knitting in a shoulder bag as they follow their sheep, and they knit into the “back” of the stitch, unlike knitters using either European method. This is pretty good cultural evidence that they reverse-engineered the process, unless they developed it de novo, which apparently they didn’t.

    My own experience in learning to knit is unexpectedly similar, even though I had people try to teach me. My girlfriends showed me English-style knitting when I was about 8, but they really didn’t know how to teach yet, and were generally not available when I needed help, so my mother, who knitted in the Continental style, decided to teach me. Unfortunately, my mother had a weak sense of right and left. Since I write left-handed, she thought she should be teaching me to knit left-handed, but only got both of us confused.

    At the age of 15, I again asked Mom to demonstrate what she normally would do, and I would sit across from her and watch. Since right-handed Continental knitting involves the left hand in handling the yarn and controlling tension, it worked out fine for me, and I thought I was knitting the same way as Mom. I made scarves and Fair-Isle sweaters on straight needles, with no obvious problems. The first time I noticed something peculiar was when I made a Nordic-style sweater on a circular needle: I kept having to go back to buy more yarn, and all my stitches had a twist in them. When I was about 3/4 done, someone told me I was knitting into the back of the stitch, but it was not clear to me how not to, and, besides, I was not about to change knitting mid-garment or rip out and start over. I simply ended up with a very warm sweater. Maybe 15 years later, I decided to work on a sampler afghan, and it became obvious in flat knitting that my style of knitting messed up the direction of the decreases, so the lacy patterns looked all wrong. Rather than completely change my way of knitting, which is really rather fast, I figured out a way of doing the decreases so that they come out right. (Instead of slip, knit, pass slipped stitch over, you knit 2 together in the back of the stitch. Decreasing in the other direction is more complicated, which I’ll share if there is interest, but even in very detailed patterns you really aren’t doing it all that often, so it’s only a minor annoyance.) At any rate, to some degree I seem to have reverse-engineered the knitting process myself.

    Has anyone noticed that Peruvian knit patterns are very colorful, but do not involve lacy stitchwork? I suspect that this may be, in part, due to the difficulty in getting the patterns to come out looking nice.

    I’ll add a note later on craft and art, mostly from the perspective of a solo and choral singer.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 23, 2014 @ 7:27 pm


    Judy: Welcome to the group as a participant! Thanks for that fascinating look at your early knitting experience, and your info on Peruvian knitting. Could give the reference for that book you mentioned? Is it new, old, still in print, not? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Peruvian knitting.

  • Comment by Judy — February 23, 2014 @ 10:53 pm


    I should still have it in the bookcase with the other knitting and craft books and magazines. I think I got it roughly 15 years ago. (A pause while I search.) Drat. I can’t find the darn thing. I wonder if I lent to one of my daughters before she moved out.

    I don’t know if they are popular in your area, but for the past 5-10 years in the Pacific Northwest there has been a fad for Peruvian-style knitted caps among kids and young adults of both sexes. They are helmet-style hats that extend down over the ears, with a 9-12 inch rope and tassel attached to each flap (though I’ve never seen them tied.) Typically, they have Fair-isle patterned stripes in bold colors, though lately I’ve seen less traditional versions that look like the heads of Teddy bears, monkeys, and the like. Many of these sold locally are actually from Peru, since this region is a hotbed of support for indigenous craftsmen.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 24, 2014 @ 3:42 pm


    I want to make a Peruvian-style cap with the ear-pieces. It would get Comments in this small town (mostly of the writers-are-different variety.) We see a few down in the city, but the only person I asked where to get one had bought his not in Peru but in Argentina, he said. The ear flaps were sewn on and it was lined with woven fabric. I think it’d work well in winter on the land. I have no idea how much yarn it would take, or how hard it would be–have been trying to think through how to do it.

  • Comment by Fred — February 25, 2014 @ 12:18 am


    This probably comes under the heading of stuff people already know, but I found a bunch of patterns for Peruvian style hats with earflaps at .

    Me, I’m still actually amazed that knitting works – it seems almost miraculous, taking a long thin yarn, and ending up with socks, hats, mittens, etc. Whoever invented knitting back in the Middle Ages was a genius!

    (No, I haven’t learned yet!)

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 26, 2014 @ 2:11 pm


    Fred: Thanks for that. As for genius inventions…if you put enough monkeys (children, bored adults) together with string and sticks and they start playing around…all sort of things come out. “Hey, look, we could use this to catch fish…” Followed a century or so later by “Hey, look, if you use a smaller netting hook, you can make this…” Nallbinding, which preceded knitting, using one piece of wood. Followed a century or more later by “Hey, lookit with what I did with TWO sticks.” Once you make a loop and push another loop through it…fascination takes over. We’re not even sure about the sticks…some people now knit with their hands alone–not a tight fabric, but if you’re playing with string and suddenly have a row of loops…the idea may come to hold them with a stick (handier and potentially longer than your fingers) and away you go.

    MikeD: Maybe those folks will consider themselves lucky that they have something to read between now and CROWN’s release.

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