In view of this site’s title, it’s not surprising people often ask, “What’s the difference between a writer and an author?”
Usually, I admit it’s a cheeky sophistry, since there is no true distinction, save for the common connotation that an “author” is somehow more professional. A writer is just someone who scribbles; an author is someone who has arrived, probably by having been published. At any rate, the title has always indicated my intention that this site should encourage growth among writers—myself first and foremost.
Unintentionally, this blog has become the chronicle of my life. I don’t often write about my life, but as I look back through the archives of the last eleven years, I can chart not only my personal growth, as both writer and woman, but also the arc of my interest in the art and craft of writing.
The super-early posts were the ones about being a “writer.” When I wrote them, I was just grubbing it out, still learning how to put one word in front of the other. I was interested in mastering things like “show vs. tell” and basic ideas about the nature of subconscious creativity.
A few years later, I discovered story theory—story structure, scene structure, character arcs, theme—and my enthusiasm cranked into high gear. I consider the posts that emerged during these years to be about becoming an “author.” This was the period when I was embracing concepts and principles to which I would now point storytellers for help in taking that symbolic step from mere “writer” to seasoned “author.”
But… what comes after that?
After you’ve made the jump from writer to author, what’s left?
I’ve been pondering this for a couple years now, both in my own journey as a writer, but perhaps even more urgently in regard to the blog itself. What can I write about that I haven’t written about before? (After 11 years and 1,300+ posts, it becomes a poignant question!)
Recently, I think I’ve discovered the answer.
Helping Writers Become Authors Become Artists
No, I’m not going to change the name of the site.
And, yes, this is a little bit more of that same sophistry. After all, if you’re a writer, you’re already an artist. (As an aside, I have always firmly believed the angst we sometimes feel about our right to the title of “writer” is misplaced. If you write, you are a writer. You don’t have to be a genius to be a writer. You don’t have to be published. You don’t even have to be any good yet. You write, therefore you are a writer. Same goes for being an artist.)
But as with the subtle distinction between “writer” and “author,” I believe the title “artist” connotes something a little bigger, a little grander, a little more dedicated, a little more responsible, and a little more accomplished.
As a reader and viewer, I desire art. I don’t want “just” stories—even ones told with proper form and decent style. I want art. I want transportation. I want to experience things I’ve never experienced before. I want characters who challenge me to rise and rise again. I want stories that are lovingly and consciously crafted by masters who understand the form, but who have ascended above mediocrity with absolute honesty about themselves and total respect to their audiences.
Even in our story-saturated culture, authors are few enough and artists are rare indeed.
What an Artist Is—and Is Not
1. An Artist Is… a Master Storyteller
In my little hierarchy, the artist stands on the shoulders of the author—a writer who has dedicated himself to the craft. Although I’m sure there are a few artists who were born instead of made, they are truly unusual. Artistic masters, in any medium, are those who have toiled. They have taken to heart Ernest Hemingway’s suggestion that:
We are all apprentices in a craft no one ever masters.
Being brilliant isn’t enough. Having a unique vision isn’t enough. A story burning upon your tongue like Isaiah’s coal isn’t enough. It isn’t enough even to string words together prettily or to properly construct a convincing story structure. So many people out there today can check all those boxes. And some of them are world-famous and rich-till-they-die. But they’re not all artists.
Artists are those who have gone beyond what is merely “proper” to a fully integrated understanding of how story lives and breathes throughout history and in every moment of our lives. In his classic The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes:
What the young writer needs to develop, to achieve his goal of becoming a great artist, is not a set of aesthetic laws but artistic mastery. He cannot hope to develop mastery all at once; it involves too much. But if he pursues his goal in the proper way, he can approach it much more rapidly than he would if he went at it hit-or-miss.
2. An Artist Is… a “Poet Soul”
The “poet soul” is something special burning in the hearts of true artists. Actually, I think it probably burns in the heart of every person; artists are just the ones least likely to let the flame go out. By “poet soul,” I mean a quality that gives the artist an X-ray view of life. It is something within that resonates to Beauty and to Truth. It both feels deeply and strives to think clearly.
It is this that differentiates the stories of an artist. It’s the difference between Princess Mononoke and Shrek 3, between Persuasion and Twilight, between The Book Thief and Nancy Drew. This isn’t to say the latter choices are without value or that popular genre fiction can’t rise to art. Indeed, if a good fairy could pop down here right now and grant my top wish, it would be that the next story I experience could perfectly blend popcorn entertainment with true artistic sensibility.
The “poet soul” is not an excuse to get all hoity and esoteric. (If I have to watch one more color-muted, two-note soundtracked “auteur” film in which nothing happens beyond a talented actor mugging out her suffering onscreen, I might just start agreeing with the ubiquitous thematic insinuations that “all is meaningless.”)
Rather, the “poet soul” is a call to awareness and honesty—first as a person and then as an author. Combined with a solid mastery of the art of storytelling, this is radical leap to a new level.
3. An Artist Is… a Visionary Mind
I feel like a lot of wannabe artists skip right to this one. They have a vision for their story—whether it’s a catchy premise, a deep theme, or a unique style. By itself, this often and unfortunately offers little more than sound and fury. It starts off with great promise, only to fizzle out.
That said, having an “artistic vision” is a huge part of rising to become a true artist. When we are given the ability to step into someone else’s vision, we want it to be a good one—we want it to be a new experience, something at least slightly unique.
Willa Cather said:
There are only two or three human stories. But they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.
All writers are confined by this truth. But artists claim that word “fiercely” and tell their stories in that ever so distinctive way that makes even the most story-saturated audience see old truths in a new light.
4. An Artist Is Not… Someone Who Is Above the Form
Sometimes when we hear the word “artist” (usually, in these instances, pronounced “ah-tist”), the connotation is of a story that is utterly unique—perhaps even bizarre. The subtle suggestion here is often of someone of such brilliance he has no need, much less use for the rules of the artform.
Occasionally, I get emails from folks wondering if they really need to follow all these “rules” of structure and narrative. Almost inevitably, these are the same emails that randomly neglect capitalization and punctuation. Clearly, these writers haven’t yet put in the due diligence to even think about reinventing the form.
Very few memorable writers reinvent the form at all. Those who do, such as James Joyce with Finnegans Wake, tend to produce curious singularities rather than true reinventions. Instead, for the last several millennia, most of our most brilliantly artistic storytellers are those who have written squarely within a masterful understanding of storytelling—both classical and common. Even relatively “bizarre” authors such as Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner are riffing off the form, not ignoring it.
5. An Artist Is Not… a Hack
This is a tricky distinction. For example, the first person to pop to mind after I wrote that subtitle was Edgar Rice Burroughs—who created classic archetypal characters such as Tarzan and John Carter. Arguably, he was a hack. Arguably, so was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For that matter, might not serial writers such as Dickens and Dostoevsky be piled in there?
These authors will be remembered in perpetuity. Even the pulpiest among them created stories that have forever impacted the social consciousness. That’s art at its most powerful. If they’re hacks, then they’re awfully impressive hacks.
Now, I can hardly presume to know why all these authors wrote. Perhaps some had the basest of motives for churning out the stories that would end up imprinting the world. But I think not. And that’s my point.
Artists have something to say. They have the “artistic vision” and “poet’s soul” (sometimes in spite of themselves). Even if they’re writing for the money (because who isn’t?), they’re not writing just for the money. Even if they’re a ghostwriter or studio writer, telling someone else’s stories, they’re still pouring themselves into those stories—even when it’s a slog, even when the inspiration isn’t there, even when everything in life resists them—there’s always something in them reaching onwards and upwards.
6. An Artist Is Not… a Propagandist
Again, this is a tricky one—because doesn’t every author have something to say? Perhaps it might even be especially true if that author is striving toward artistry? We all have our truths to tell. Some of them are truly true. Some are not. But all are valid if they are honestly ours.
So what makes the difference between an author’s “truth” and propaganda? The distinction is subtle (and extremely arguable), as well as being deeply influenced by the artist’s range of storytelling skills. To me, though, it comes down to the author’s focus. There’s a special something in those most unforgettable stories. They have something to say, but that it is not the sole reason for their existence, just as they also entertain without entertainment being their sole reason for existence.
Story as a form is inimitable in its ability to say something about the world without needing to say it directly. As legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn reportedly quipped:
If you want to send a message, try Western Union.
To me, that’s the entire secret of great art. It always has a message—but you don’t always notice.
7. An Artist Is Not… Pretentious
Granted, I’m sure we could come up with dozens of brilliant scribes who believe God thumbprinted their foreheads. Certainly, all writers must believe, at intervals, that we really have a story and a skill worth all the work. But believing in the work isn’t the same as a narcissistic insistence upon one’s “artistry.”
I really, really want to be an artist. I want to write something someday that is everything I’ve ever wanted a story to be. It doesn’t have to be famous or even recognized. But I hope someday just to write it. That’s my goal. And I do everything I can every day to build my life around that artistic pursuit. In the practical sense of ink-stained fingers, I absolutely think of myself as an artist. I pursue integrity in my work. I hone the craft. I have a vision for what I do.
But to think of myself as an “ah-tist,” who somehow has a clearer view of art than anyone else is ridiculous. I’ve been at this for a while and, as this post bears out, I have decided opinions. I believe artists should have decided opinions.
But we must also have wide-open minds. Like Ernest said, we’re all still apprentices—in life as well as art. To forget that is, I think, to instantly dim our poet’s soul.
Wherever your honest estimation of yourself finds you on the road from “writer” to “author” to “artist,” I hope you will join me in fanning our creative coals. Over and over, on this journey, I find myself discovering a bend in the road that leads to new and exciting possibilities for growth. Even if the title of “artist” is one you already possess, I encourage you to join me in thinking of it as a calling all its own, one worth striving toward with every word we write.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think an artist is… and is not? Tell me in the comments!
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