The Artistry of Writing
Contributor
Don’t tell my husband, but I am in love with a certain Latin singer. Not the man, necessarily, but his voice. As an "old timer" I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I’ve become enamored with Marc Anthony’s “second wave” of Spanish love ballads and salsa numbers. But this is not a blog about Latin music or Marc Anthony; I only bring him up because while immersed in his playlist, I got to wondering what it takes to be the literary equivalent of a gifted singer.

In Anthony’s case, I was taken in by his superb blend of vocal fluidity, pitch, and fire. Whether you happen to love or hate Marc Anthony, I think we can all agree that a truly great vocalist should possess all three of these qualities. But what virtues make for a great novelist—one who consistently delivers an absorbing “punch” of flawless language and seamless syntax? What, exactly, is the author’s equivalent of a superstar’s practiced skill, sublime raw talent, and emotional abandon?

In the literary world, skill is apparent from an author’s ability to “write tight”—to express ideas and images in a succinct, crisp, and yet subtly poetic way. This takes years of practice and dedication. And there is no “faking it," either, since a writer’s output is forever emblazoned in black-and-white, for better or worse.

Like a beautiful song sung off-key, readers are distracted and ultimately repelled by schlocky writing. But that’s how we write; what we write is important, too. However artful one’s prose, a literary “product” lacking substance or crafted from shoddy material will certainly fall flat—which is why a “sucky” story will doom almost any novel. Readers crave compelling narrative; they are drawn to a gripping tale like the haunting quality of a melodious voice. But just as a baby’s cry is compelling without being pleasing, even the most imaginative story will grate on readers’ nerves if written poorly. Craft and substance, therefore, are the writer’s equivalent of a singer’s range, agility and tonality. And so the circle is complete. Or is it?

Once you’ve “nailed” craft and substance, passion seems to be the one element that sets the artists apart from the hacks. True passion can tip the scales from mediocrity to transcendence, no matter the discipline. That palpable energy is what makes our eyes widen, our pulses quicken, and our hearts writhe in empathy. Such cutting-edge creativity demands that an artist manipulate his or her chosen medium in innovative ways to cry out in anguish, moan in pain, and yelp for joy—and do it with a precision that seems spontaneous (even though such awe-inspiring displays are only attained after years of painstaking practice and experimentation). In this way, passionate artists put themselves “out there” time and again in a process of trial and error. They metaphorically march on stage wearing nothing but a see-through costume; offer up their hearts on a beautiful platter; then step aside to watch and wait, while the audience picks apart this bleeding, pulsating thing submitted for its approval. (And in the fleeting, agonizing moments following all the poking and prodding, our audience lets us know in no uncertain terms whether or not we’ve moved them.) Anthony’s voice and lyrics convey this tender vulnerability time and again—especially on his Spanish ballads. They tell you he has experienced firsthand love and loss, longing and jealousy, and heady sensual pleasure.

Anthony's well-deserved success has revived my own commitment to strive for that quality of “nakedness” in my novels. Whether creative passion invites adulation or scorn, it's something an artist cannot fake—and is the ultimate privilege to share.

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