Friday, July 2, 2010

The Spin Zone: Writing and dancing alike?

While watching the weekly results of one of my favorite shows, So You Think You Can Dance, I was reminded of an aged and ongoing debate. Is writing an art or a craft?

Wow, Rhiannon! How did a show about dancing remind you of writing?

So glad you asked. It just so happens I am going to devote this entire blog post to explaining exactly that :)

In the bottom three this week were Billy and Robert, two very-skilled contemporary dancers. It does not take an expert to see how good these guys are at what they do; they're both extraordinarily so. Yet, there they were at the bottom, at risk of going home after only a few short weeks.

For those who haven't seen the show or who are tuning in for their first SYTYCD season, the results might baffle you. Why didn't they get more votes if they truly are that good?

The judges sounded like they knew--spouted off the same mumbo-jumbo we hear every season because this great dancer in the bottom three thing has happened before. A lot. It usually sounds something like:"Your lines are perfect, but..." or "You're one of the greatest dancers we've ever had on this show, but..." or "Your dancing is flawless, but..." and the "but" is followed by some comment on their *insert keywords like performance, chemistry, connection*.

The problem with Billy and Robert is not with the technical side of their dancing--the craft--but with the artistry of their dancing. The artistry is where those keywords come into play. Example: Billy's lines are gorgeous, but how does he make you feel?

"He makes me feel like his lines are gorgeous."

Sorry. Gorgeous lines in an observation based on his skill level, not an emotion.

Confused? Let's define.

Craft is skill.

Art is creativity, the creation of beauty.

This season's winner will be possess both of the above, as has every winner in SYTYCD history. Every year proves that voters will choose a dancer who is not only skilled at what they do, but who emits this sort of intangible quality that stirs the watcher to feel something.

And isn't this true of writers as well? Readers expect their favorite author to be a skilled grammarian, a master at vocabulary and syntax. Books should not be riddled with misspellings, punctuation errors, and misused words. There should be a structure to the story, not some disorganized plot without a clear path from start to finish. Writers should be proficient in the craft of writing. So You Think You Can Dance fans can correlate this concept to Billy and Robert--great technical dancers to great technical writers.

Great technical dancer, great technical writer. Sounds good enough, right? Well, no. Remember--Billy and Robert were in the bottom three.

There is something else--that quality a reader cannot always put their finger on. Plot and grammar on their own do not induce emotion or rouse thought, but it is the artistry behind the words used to form the story that evokes us. Not what is written, but what is whispered. If a writer concentrates solely on the craft of writing like Billy only concentrates on the technicality of his movement, the story can still be skillfully done. But it will also be too antiseptic, too sanitized to produce anything more than well-written information. Art spills the tears and draws the laughter. Art is what compels you to keep reading past your bedtime. Art is what leaves you with a feeling, good or bad, when you get to the words the end.

This doesn't mean we should get too wrapped up in the art and forget the craft. We've all seen those Idol auditions. There can be a lot of heart, a lot of creativity, but without skill it can be downright embarrassing.

The craft speaks, the artistry resounds. Skill without creativity is lackluster. Creativity without skill is well-intended but falls short.

The age old craft vs. art argument is a trap for those who ponder it with illusions of fitting into what they judge as the better half. To pick one or the other does not define; it confines.

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