I met with a high school student recently, who was thinking he might like to be a writer. You know, for a job, when he was done with college. He wanted some advice on what this kind of life was like. I told him that he has a decision to make – not now, but once he’s sure he wants to be writer: he can choose to be an artist or he can choose to be a craftsman.
Maybe I’m making this sound too black-and-white. Of course you can be both things. But the divide in writing is still there. Artists are what many people think of when they think of writers. Producing a great work of fiction, head incandescent with words, eating bread and maggoty cheese, washing out your one shirt at night in a garret, to paraphrase Margaret Atwood. You exist in the realm of other artists: painters, dancers, playwrights. You write a novel and the novel is the art and whether or not someone chooses to publish it is almost beside the point.
Craftsmen are the less sexy writers. Craftsmen are writers who write for money, for an employer or for a client. In-house writers, business writers, technical writers, freelance writers. Journalists are in this category, and copywriters. Becoming a craftsman means you get to make money writing instead of waiting tables. You employ your writing skills to serve your own ends. You don’t suddenly decide you want to write a poem instead of a press release. You write the press release the way your boss or your client asked you to.
I wonder if the high school student felt deflated when I presented these two choices to him. He didn’t look deflated. He looked buoyed up and excited by the thought of going to college. All these words I was saying to him were just rolling around in his head. They were going to be buried by thoughts of living on your own in a dorm and riding a bike across campus and playing a guitar at open-mike night in the Union. But maybe, when he’d lived through that, and it was time to make some money out in the world, he’d find those words again. And maybe they’d be helpful.