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.)



53 thoughts on “Design/Originality/Craftsmanship

  1. Thanks for sharing this story. Made my morning. I suspect as the days progress, it will have even more meaning for me.


  2. That’s a great picture!

    I love your story, both personally and for my classes. My materials science class does projects that are art-like and grading those is always….interesting. I have tried to make a similar system, but I might steal yours! 🙂

    1. At least it’s not Gidget hair. But Farrah hair was about right, that would have been the early eighties.

      I just found a picture of me at 19 (that would be 1969). I was a sophomore in college, and my roommate, the great Susan Radke, had sworn to me that she knew how to frost hair. Except she used every hole in the frosting cap and I ended up platinum. Fortunately it was 1969, I was nineteen, and nobody cared.

      1. At least you didn’t end up with orange spots on your hair — that’s what happened when I used Sun-In Spray On Lightener one summer. So I evened it out — full orange.

      2. I love the Farrah hair! You really pulled it off. Hell, I love this picture and I wish you had been my art teacher, too. (Mine mostly just wanted us to paint apples that looked like apples and trees that looked like trees.)

      3. Somehow I am smelling in memory Love’s Fresh Lemon. “I picked a lemon in the garden of love”

      4. Well, then – I’m Class of ’83, and we’re all over 50 now… it’s so weird to see these kinds of photos, because in my head all my classmates still look like that, and on FaceBook they’re all balding or grey (says me with my newly died mermaid hair.) And whippersnappers make fun of the hair, but secretly I still think we looked pretty good ?

  3. Thank you for this. I’m in dissertation hell. Needed this reminder. Well, that and just putting my butt in a seat in front of a computer.

    1. My sympathies on the diss hell. I did my generals, got my prospectus approved, started to write, and discovered romance fiction.
      Somehow I’ve never gotten back to that diss. STAY WITH IT, SKYLAR.

      1. Well, I don’t know. If there’s a possibility of a Crusie Mk II, I’m in favour of Skylar switching to writing romance.

  4. Thank you so much for this. The discovery draft can feel so much like a giant Kermit-flail keyboard face-roll. Remembering the basic conceptual elements – like big primary color wooden blocks in my head – is a huge boost. My acupuncturist has given me a reminder phrase that’s helped me get through a lot of challenges over the past few years: Center/Ground/Neutral. I think it maps well onto Design/Originality/Craftsmanship, if not necessarily in the same order.

  5. Wow. We could all use that speech.

    -Do the project.
    -Do the project YOUR WAY.
    -Do the project YOUR WAY, and to the best of your ability.

    I took a quilt class that was about 6 weeks long (???). It was a beginning class, and went from selecting fabric to piecing to quilting and binding. My classmates were pretty varied-a few older women, a few middle-aged-ish (like me and my friend), a guy about 25, and a girl who was homeschooled, and this was her art class. That young lady was about 12ish, and she was fearless. Her fabrics were so bold, she did an original quilting pattern that was fairly complicated. Her quilt turned out beautiful. We adults, on the other hand, asked MANY TIMES, “Is this right? Are you sure it’s ok?” I’m pretty comfortable with my creative choices now, and know my limits, both of skill and desire. But whenever I waver, I think of her and resolve to be bold!!

    1. That’s why I stopped reading up on the “right” way to crazy quilt (seriously? It’s crazy!) and just did what I want. Who’s going to care anyway, the Quilt Police?

    2. Yes! A friend taught me stained glass, so I took it into my classroom. A few of my students just RAN with it and their second or third projects were things that my friend and teacher was still not comfortable trying (3-D shapes, etc). They were fearless because they didn’t know not to be.

      1. Yes! to Jenny, and Double-yes to Briana! Be fearless because who says you have to be fearful? I’m going to put that on my computer right now. And if the Fiction Police (and yes, they are out there, but they aren’t allowed handguns) hate it, they can suck it.

        But . . . craftsmanship is so much easier if it’s pretty much imposed from the beginning. Sigh. That’s why I crazy-quilt in used jeans — I don’t have to worry about colors that way.

        So many feels coming from this post and comments. The Censor and the Girls are all yelling inside my head.

  6. This is exactly what kids in school today need to know. About every class. Because they don’t trust teachers, often with good reason. Kids are expected to already know what to do when they walk in. That approach works with the ones who pretty much know what to do and need a little structure and guidance to get them the rest of the way. It’s a horrific disservice to all the other kids. The ones who know it and get bored become trouble makers. The ones who know it and get bored, but are rule followers with enough imagination to entertain themselves, don’t have the opportunity to challenge themselves. If they don’t learn it elsewhere, they end up shrinking from challenges later in life until they wake up in their forties angry about the time they lost doing the things that matter. And the ones who don’t have the foundation at all just get left farther and farther behind.

    Even the teachers who want to help often don’t understand that trust is the underlying issue. They get offended at the suggestion that they may not be trustworthy. Or don’t understand that a child who has been traumatized, including one who has been bullied by classmates and not rescued, needs time to heal and should not be pushed. You can’t trust a teacher who doesn’t give you that time and space.

    You can’t trust a teacher who ranks the class on the board, even by behavioral standards. Learning is not a competition, it’s an art. It’s the most important skill you’ll ever have.

    You can’t trust a teacher who doesn’t tell you the rules and then docks you for not following them.

    Both my kids are autistic and need the rules explicitly spelled out for them. Even though it’s part of their diagnosis, none of their teachers seem to understand it. The more I learn about it, the more I realize that it would be useful for ALL students to have the rules and grading criteria spelled out for them. Problem is, then they would all be able to succeed and how would we know who is the best? Because that’s what school is for, right? To weed out the lesser souls? To pity or belittle them to make ourselves feel superior?

    Sorry. My boys and I are going through a really rough elementary school experience and I’m feeling very raw and angry. I believe strongly in public school, but I have to move my 11-year-old to a private school next year to restore his soul and give him the opportunity to heal from the trauma inflicted on him by students and teachers alike.

    Your approach to art class seems so simple and logical and fair. Thank you for giving that gift to your students than and now. You are a born teacher. Thank you for sharing your gift with us.

    Now that I’ve gushed all over you, I’m embarrassed and feel like I should insult you or metaphorically punch you in the arm some other way. That’s probably because I’m outnumbered by males in my house (including the dogs) 2:1, so I’m just going to sit with the feeling and not try to temper it.

    1. I agree. I taught English, too, and the same things applied.
      The real wake-up call was when I was assigned to teach English C, aka the dumb kids. They weren’t dumb, they just hated school, and for good reason. So the first day, I said, “Look, people learn in different ways, but most schools only teach the read-the-assignment-and-respond way. So we’re going to do this in different ways and you’re still going to learn things but it won’t be awful, I promise.” And I still remember when the scholarship teacher came in to get something, saw the test they were taking on T.S.Eliot, and said, “Is this an AP class?” When I told her it was English C, she said, “How can they do this test?” So I said to the kids, “Anybody here having trouble with this?” and they all shook their heads because they weren’t; we’d pretty much taken Prufrock apart. It was so good for them to hear that the test they were taking was AP level and they could do it.

      Sometimes I just hated the public school system. It had so much good in it–I worked with some wonderful people–but so much of it just flattened kids who weren’t the kind of academic they rewarded.

      I really did love teaching. Good call on getting your kid to a better place.

      1. Not to state the obvious, but you’re still teaching. And we’re all thankful for it.

        1. Yes, but it’s not the same as looking people in the eye and reaching them. There’s so much energy in a real classroom.
          But this is much comfier. Plus you all know as much as I do so I get to learn, too. It’s good.

      2. My mother taught AP English and tech English (bottom level) and was once asked what was the difference between teaching the two. She said the only difference was the AP kids could do a larger amount of work but the teaching methods were just the same.

    2. I’m sitting in solidarity with you. Two special needs kids, the ADD driving herself crazy to do everything perfectly, lest it all fall apart, the little spectrum(?) kid making sure everyone everywhere knows exactly how overwhelmed she is…

      I taught, too, and had planned on going back to at least subbing now that they’re both full time. But they both need so much support that it’s best for me to focus on them.

      But my little led the closing flag ceremony today at Girl Scout camp, in front of 200+ people, and I’m bragging here just because I can. Love me some Girl Scouts.

      1. Wow! Doing that in front of 200+ is huge! Yay!!!

        I thought about going back to an old job after the boys started school, too, but there was just no way. They both have ASD, ADD, anxiety, dysgraphia…staying on top of therapies and IEPs is a full time job. You pile managing meltdowns and just life with kids on top and there’s no room to add anything else.

  7. I wish you had been my art teacher

    My brother could doodle better stuff in the corners of his notes then my best work and my sister would cover paper tablecloths with whatever took her fancy, it was as natural as breathing for them. I don’t have any natural talent and I was always afraid, trying to follow the rules literally with a ruler and measurements.

  8. Just found out it’s the 20-year anniversary of Harry Potter. I’m old, too.
    I love this story. Thanks so much for sharing it.

  9. Echoing, but I wish you’d been my art teacher, too. The first year of required art, the teacher took an art history approach, which was great for me. Just memorize the facts and who did it, and cool. The second teacher was much more arty. We did a lot more memorable projects and I loved doing them — but was so disappointed when the report card came. I was a straight-A student, and got a B-, and couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. I didn’t ask, because in JHS, you just didn’t. Or at least, I didn’t feel I was allowed to.

    I remember doing a sketch of my thumb, and getting really engrossed in it and then finally getting an A! I spent the rest of the class trying to replicate my results — sketching thumbs, big toes, sneakers . . . . Never did get another A. I suspect the B was a pity B.

    I still would have been a frustrating student under your methodology. (-: Tell me to be creative, and I tend to concentrate on that aspect. (I feel like the previous sentence should include “out the wazoo” but I can’t figure out how to fit it in.) I suspect I would have done OK with the design rules, but the craftsmanship? LOL. Out the wazoo.

  10. In the early 60’s I think I was a sophomore in high school I took a typing class on a manual typewriter, at some point during the year our teacher gave us an assignment and told us that no one has ever gotten the assignment correct without making a mistake. Well except for me. When the time was up I pulled my paper out of the typewriter and double checked my work. No mistakes. I brought it up to her expecting a congratulation instead I got a “hrumph” and sent back to my seat. Needless to say I did not take that course the next year. My mistake, fast forward years later wanting to change jobs my town at the time had night school classes in typing and shorthand, etc. Don’t remember much about shorthand but the typing helped to get me out of my rut and into a better paying job. So there Miss H.!
    On the other hand at the same time in art class our teacher gave us an assignment to create a wallpaper design, what girl does not want to redecorate their room . That class was fun.

  11. I loved my high school art teacher.

    She let me try and fail; try more, fail more and try even harder and fail even more spectacularly in photo class. I could not, for the life of me, develop my film. She KNEW I was spending hours trying to do it, she helped me and still I failed to produce most of the assignments. I think I got an A in the class, which I didn’t get until this post. I always assumed it was a pity grade but I’m rethinking that now.

    I had much fewer problems with the other art classes I had with her. I still have several pieces and I graduated high school in 1988. I also worked with her as crew for the assorted school plays/musicals.

  12. I was just reading an anecdote on Not Always Teaching from a former art student who felt that their teacher turned on them and kept moving the goalposts, and I was thinking of this discussion thread. The tragic part was reading the comments on NAT (I should know by now, never read below the comments line!) and the number of comments that boiled down to “Toughen up! You’re going to get worse than that in the real world.”

    1. That’s such a common response and it honestly baffles me. Reminds me of when I was eight months pregnant with our first child and my husband suggested setting alarms throughout the night so we could get used to the sleep deprivation. I told him to knock himself out, but there would be hell to pay if he woke me up because I intended to get all the sleep I could get.

      School is supposed to be the place where you build on the foundation your parents hopefully gave you so you’re ready for the real world at the *end* of school. We’re supposed to protect children, not lock them out and tell them to fend for themselves.

      1. Yes. We’re supposed to teach them how to wield the sword and shield BEFORE we throw them to the wolves, not expect them to pick it up as they go along. Although, my sons seem to be learning how to talk to the wolves and forge them into their Pack of Darkness, so…

        1. Also, YES –> “We’re supposed to teach them how to wield the sword and shield BEFORE we throw them to the wolves, not expect them to pick it up as they go along.”

  13. Hmm. As a writer, and perhaps at a human being, I have no trouble with originality, and I’m diligent about continually improving my craft. My weakness is the design part. Say romance readers expect X, Y, Z, and I’m more like, “Here’s a bit of X, but do you like Q? How about an omega? Pretty cool, right?” while they’re running away.

    It helps if someone sits me down and says, “Start with X” but doesn’t force me to do nothing but X, Y, Z. I felt like I couldn’t breathe during my grade eleven English class, when all we did was write five paragraph essays, and she compared your thesis to the string in a pearl necklace, and each paragraph is a pearl. Introduction pearl: start at the string. Come back to the string. First paragraph pearl: start at the string. Come back to the string. Etc. For five @#@#$^@ pearls. She taught that analogy more than once, too.

    Anyway. Thank heavens for teachers like Jenny and moms like Michelle.

    1. I taught the five-paragraph theme; it was the basis of the packet that the student took to college and his entire floor copied. It’s a live-saver for people who don’t have an instinct for written thought, which is a huge part of the population.

      Basically, I taught teenagers this:
      Start with a question (could be an essay question on a test).
      1. State your answer.
      2. List three reasons that answer is true (IYHO). Give concrete examples for each reason, developing each reason into a paragraph with a thesis statement (reason) support points (examples) and conclusion.
      3. Order the three reason paragraphs from weakest to strongest, so that you end on your strongest argument (people only remember what they read last, and probably only about 10% of that).
      4. Go back and rewrite your first paragraph (thesis statement and explanation) to set up those three reasons.
      5. Write a concluding paragraph that restates your thesis, but in a new way.
      6. Read through the whole thing and smooth it out.

      You can get an A or a B on pretty much any standard assignment if you do that. Your writing won’t be brilliant but it will follow the best way of communicating an idea, AKA the old preacher’s plan: Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, tell ’em what you just told them. As long as you vary your wording so you’re not repeating the exact same words and phrases, you’ll get a good tight argument or at least something that looks like an organized argument.

      The problem comes when you DO have an instinct for writing. Then that becomes a straitjacket, and it all goes to hell. For the vast majority of people in college comp in high school and freshman comp in college, it’s a life saver.

      It’s also popular because it’s a ridiculously easy way to teach a difficult subject. It’s kind of like the concept of acts for a novel; if you’re a natural storyteller, you don’t need to know about acts and turning points because you’ll structure your story by instinct. If you’re not a natural storyteller (that would be me), you’re gonna need the five-paragraph-theme approach to story, acts and TPs.

      1. See, I already like yours better because you end with the strongest argument and bring up preachers, instead of drawing the pearl necklace and trotting out the same explanation five times per class.
        Some teachers seem to like templates and conformity. I understand that for math, but not English and art.

        1. That’s because you have an affinity for English and art. Math people may love formulas, but they don’t create by them, they watch the numbers dance. If you can’t see the dance in any subject, you need to be taught the patterns.

          And then some teachers get stuck on the patterns because they can’t get to “But if you can see the dance, you can move ahead of the patterns and do your own thing.” But really, the best people in any subject know both and use both because they’re just wonks and love being immersed in that subject.

      2. I’m not a natural story teller, but I do have an instinct for written thought and you are spot on about the straight jacket. I hate the insistence on doing an outline, too. “I’ll be able to tell if you don’t do an outline.” Really? Because I can’t do one to this day and have never had a single teacher mention it to me.

        My junior English teacher drove me insane and not just because she was a Mary Kay Letourneau waiting to happen, which is another story. She would hand back a paper telling me my introduction was boring and I needed to fix it. I never understood that. It’s a high school English paper. Of course it’s boring.

        I would desperately pad it with whatever I thought might interest her. It would come back to me with the new stuff circled and a note saying that it is completely off topic. That was more than 30 years ago and I still hate that woman with the fire of a thousand suns.

        She talked about the pearl necklace as well. That phrase means something totally different to me now.


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