Monday, June 7, 2010


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A few months ago, I received a letter from a young M reader. She said, "I was going to write to Mark M Twain and Enid Blyton but I hear they are dead." Since according to the flap m copy of my book I was still alive, she was hastening to write to me before I, too, had the temerity to pass on.

Was I insulted? I felt like P.L. Travers, who said, "To be thought to have done your work and gone away is a beautiful piece of anonymity."

What Travers was reminding all authors is that it is the work--not the worker--that is important. No one sees this better than the child reader. To such a reader, the book lives, and not necessarily the author. When I was an editor, not a month went by that we did not receive mail addressed to Mme. LePrince de Beaumont, or Joseph Jacobs, or one of the Brothers Grimm.

If my books are as alive as Blyton's and Twain's to only one child, then I feel I have learned my craft well.

Craftsmanship and power

Writing is a craft--make no mistake about it. It is something professional writers recognize, though amateurs often do not. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the largest professional writer's group in America is called a guild.

I have long harbored the illusion that writing is a craft. But it was not until this past year, when my husband and I started a craft center in one of our barns, that I have been able to put this illusion to the test. I have spent hours watching the craftsmen in our barn--the two potters, the two leather workers, the wood carver, the weaver. And I have been reading a good deal about crafts and craftspeople, from the medieval guilds to the masters today.

I am more than ever convinced that writing is a craft.

An old definition of craft included the meaning "power." We must consider this definition, for an excellent book is a powerful book, an excellent writer is one who uses words powerfully.

A more modern definition, which I like very much, comes from the Crafts Council of Great Britain: "The craftsman is the prime source of those fine things by which the senses are educated and life enriched.... His work asserts the absolute priority of the personal in a world of mechanism.... He is more than ever necessary to the health of society."

Between the old definition of power and the modern craftsperson's self-definition as individualist and healer, is a definition that arose in the 1950s in this country when there was a renaissance of craftwork known as the do-it-yourself movement. Unfortunately, as a result of that movement, most middle-aged, middle-class Americans think of a craft as a "hobby," something one does in spare moments, on short breaks, to pass the time, as leisure activities or retirement-age projects.

Until recently, whenever anyone said to me, "Where do you get time to write with all the other things you have to do?" (meaning, of course, my work as a housewife, mother, cook, diaper-laundress, etc.), I would blush and apologize for my messy home. I was still thinking in terms of writing-as-a-spare-time activity.

In my writing workshops I often meet the equivalent writing hobbyists. They are people who are writing what I term "coffee-break books," simpleminded nonbooks that they turn out in short order. Because children's books are often shorter than adult books, they seem to invite amateurs to tackle them.

But if you are serious about writing, you commit yourself to it--even if you can find only a few hours a day to work. During those few hours your entire concentration is focused on writing, on learning your craft. And the beginning writer has much to learn.

Apprentice to master

We tend to think that we know how to write because we already know and use daily the basic stuff of which books are made--words. It would never occur to a beginning potter that he knows all about the plasticity of clay. Beginning authors, however, think they know all about the plasticity of language simply because they have been using it all their lives. It just is not so.

Three years ago a nationwide survey of writing exercises administered to 86,000 children and 8,000 adults showed that 9-year-old Americans apparently have no command of the basic writing mechanics of grammar, vocabulary and sentence structure; that only four or five of the adults tested had a good command of the English language and could write "adequate business letters and personal notes." Knowledge of grammar and vocabulary and sentence structure is as basic to good writing as knowledge of clays and kilns and glazes is to good pottery.

But mere rote knowledge is only the beginning. A good potter does not stop elbow-deep in a vase and think, "Now did the book say I use my middle finger or my thumb to finish this off?" And a good author does not stop midway in a fantasy novel and think, "What was it J.R.R. Tolkien said about making fairy stories live?" There comes a moment when the taught knowledge, the learned knowledge, the rote knowledge becomes visceral; when personal style takes hold. And when this happens, the apprentice craftsperson becomes a master. But the initial discipline is important.

Like any craft, writing takes time. If, as Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon contends, "genius is a long patience," all craft--which is the backbone of genius--takes a significant portion of that time. One must work at it continually and not just in leisure moments.

Bernard Leach wrote this in his journal: "Ideas come by day, by night, and at all sorts of odd moments and I keep a drawer full of scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, even newspaper, on which I have jotted down these thoughts before they vanish into thin air. I turn them over every so often, destroying those which no longer speak to me with a sufficient sense of life, and adding others. Constantly I find solutions to problems of shape or pattern or of technique, which I could not solve 10, 20 or even 40 years back ... and in this way [I] preserve a continuity in my work."

When I first read that paragraph, I was struck forcibly because not only is that how I work, it is how I believe all writers do--or should--work. But Leach was a potter, not a writer. And he was an impeccable craftsman who spent every moment of his life perfecting his craft.

This constant reiteration of tasks, the looking for stimulation that becomes inspiration, is a common thread in the lives of all craftspeople. As leather worker John Waterer writes: "Craftsmanship is an attitude of mind." He goes on to explain that "craftsmanship is not in itself Art, although it is a means by which an artist may express his innermost feelings."


That, after all, is what writing is about--the expression of one's innermost feelings. It is as true in children's books as it is in adult books. Perhaps it should be more so, for children are closer to their feelings than adults are, and they deserve a similar commitment from the writer, whose books they read with their whole hearts.

The process of becoming

There is continuity in the work of a craftsperson, whether potter or poet. Just as the potter uses scrap clay, unfired clay that did not respond properly to the potter's hands, so, too, the writer uses and reuses ideas, sequences, characters. We writers could borrow the phrase from the potters and call those bits and pieces of our writing which we save to use again "scrap." And so these scraps of experiences and characters ready to become stories become lovely things, not rubbish.

One of the potters in our craft center had come through a terrible year where nothing had gone right--his clay had frozen one night when the temperature dropped below zero and the stove went out; his cousin had dropped two ware trays of finished work; his kiln had misfired six times in a row, first too cold and then too hot. Yet, there he was working, his hands deep in the slippery clay and a broad smile on his face. As I walked in and watched the clay form grow between his hands, I commented, "You look happy. You look happier today than I have ever seen you."

"I am," he replied. "I no longer fear the clay. I respect it."

I have thought about that statement ever since. "I no longer fear the clay, I respect it." I have tried it out with my own raw material--words. And when my writing began to go just the way I had always wanted it to, I said without prompting: "I no longer fear the language. I respect it." It was then that I knew I had finished my apprenticeship.

I had finished my apprenticeship but knew something more: I am still in the process of becoming. As our other potter said just recently, "I still spend hours just throwing cylinders and cutting them open to see how thick the walls are." And I nodded and replied, "And I spend hours taking apart a single sentence that is wrong and worrying it until it is right." He looked at me and added, "I guess we aren't human beings. We are human becomings."

Virginia Hamilton, the author of Zeely and The Planet of Junior Brown, put it another way: "Each book, with luck, is a worthy failure; the writer not trying to be better than past authors or her contemporaries particularly, but always attempting to be better than herself."

It has taken me 20 published books--and I don't know how many false starts and bad endings--to finish my apprenticeship. And then I discover that finishing is yet another beginning. Writing is often a long and slow apprenticeship, and even when you reach master status, the way is still often long and slow and lonely. But do not hurry down the road. Stop and sniff the flowers along the way. As the Quakers say, "Way will open."

Jane Yolen, the author of numerous books for children and adults, has been nominated for a National Book Award and received the Caldecott Medal, Nebula Awards and other honors. She lives in Massachusetts. Web:

Copyright [C] 1973 by Jane Yolen. Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

Source Citation
Yolen, Jane. "Dedicate yourself to a writing apprenticeship: if you apply long hours of study, you, too, can eventually master the tools of the trade." The Writer June 2010: 24. General OneFile. Web. 7 June 2010.
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