Design/Originality/Craftsmanship

Many years ago, I was an art teacher, first at the elementary level and then at the junior high. At the elementary level, kids loved art, At the junior high level, tension set in. They came in afraid because it was a required class and they didn’t have talent. They were going to fail. They didn’t know how to be an artist. That first day, they’d look at me with varying degrees of terror and anger. We didn’t want this, I could hear them thinking. It sucks that you’re making us do this.

So I’d start out with, “Suppose this was a Spanish class. Would you feel awful because you couldn’t speak Spanish? Of course not, you’d be taking the class to learn that. And you’re taking this class to learn art. I don’t care if you’re talented or not, I just want you to learn the basics of design.”

But I could still see the tension, so I’d get to the part that was really worrying them: the grading.

“Every assignment I give you will get three grades: one on design, one on originality, one on craftsmanship.”

“For design, I’ll tell you exactly what I need you to do: repeat shapes to make a pattern, choose a color scheme, vary texture, whatever. As long as you use the design element as assigned, you’ll get an A in design. I don’t care how awful your work is, if you used the design element as assigned, you get the A.

“For originality, I’ll look for how different your approach is. Did you do a picture of a tree by a lake or did you draw flying hamburgers? Did you do orange pumpkins or purple pumpkins with red ribbon stems? How did you make the assignment new, different, yours. If you used your imagination, you’ll get an A, even if the project is a mess and you screwed up the design part.

“And finally, for craftsmanship, if you used your tools well and executed your design cleanly, if you respected what you were doing enough to do it carefully, you’ll get an A. Even if your design is all wrong and you drew Mickey Mouse, you’ll get an A in craftmanship.”

“Nothing there requires talent. I don’t care if you can draw. I just want you to learn the basics of design while using your imagination and treating your artist’s tools with respect.”

At that point, I could always feel a collective sigh in the room, thirty kids finally breathing again. And as we did one project after another, they didn’t just learn the basics of design, they learned that they really were artists, that they all had talents in different areas which meant that the fact that their work didn’t look like the kid’s next to them was a good thing, that creativity was expression, and that they could be even more expressive once they had the safety of a framework: Design/Originality/Craftsmanship.

I was thinking of that tonight, thinking of the Nita story evolving and the Gaiman Snow White story I read earlier this week and of how difficult it is to write a story, to juggle all the different aspects of writing and storytelling and I realized that it all goes back to Design/Originality/Craftsmanship. Know your structure and the theme that pulls it all together; swing wide and high within the structure, no limits to your creativity; and then revise it to be tight and strong with beautifully clear syntax, no unnecessary words to clog up the works, no grammatical or punctuation errors to spoil a reader’s attachment to the narrative.

So discovery drafting is about originality, but it’s also about discovering the structure you need, not to limit yourself but to support you as aim for the moon. It doesn’t matter that I look at this book and think, “It’s not even close.” Of course, it’s not even close. I’m still learning this story, but every step I take that brings me closer to the structure I need, every step I take farther outside the box labeled “Crusie,” every word I cut and phrase I polish, brings me closer. It’s not about talent. It’s about creativity and craft.

And design, originality, and craftsmanship.

(How long ago was this?  The kids with me in my art classroom below are all in their forties now.  I’m old.)

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