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Poet And Craftsman

“There are two men in an artist, the poet and the worker. He is born a poet, and he becomes a worker.” — Emile Zola, to his boyhood friend, Paul Cezanne.

I am now on the final revision of my book, and at this point, it is all about being a worker, not a poet. Anybody who thinks there is anything romantic about writing a book has never done it. This is hard. And yet, it’s hard in the most satisfying sense. I take pride in my work, even as with each new pass over this by now overly familiar material, I am painfully aware of my own limitations as a writer.

I’m serious. This time, I’m working with an editor who is giving close care to the manuscript, and is pushing me to go beyond anything I’ve done before. I can’t tell you how good this feels. I mean, it’s hugely embarrassing to read the text he’s marked up, and to realize that the passage I thought was so lyrical is in fact a big steaming pile of purple. And then I revise, and think that for better or for worse, it’s as good as I can get it, only to see on the next pass, after he’s dealt with the text, that no, it could in fact be better. Much better. And so I revise again.

This book has pushed me hard against the limits of my talent as a writer, but I have faith that the result will be good. Actually, I don’t have that faith, because I never re-read what I write unless an editor makes me. All I can see are the flaws. But at least I have the self-awareness to know that I’m neurotic about this stuff; I have learned not to trust my own emotions when it comes to my writing.

As I’m making this final revision, I worry that I am losing my own voice. But am I? Or am I rather honing it, under direction? It’s impossible to say now; I’m far too close to the process to say for sure. What I can say is that it has been a privilege to have worked with an engaged, intelligent editor who has not let me settle for being good enough. The responsibility I have to tell my sister’s story truthfully and well weighs heavily on my conscience, and I know I couldn’t bear this burden by myself. It’s too distorting of my own vision. The editor, for example, has helped me see times when I become overly sentimental, which is to say, when I say something that’s not true (if you follow me).

The inspiration for any work of art, however great or small, comes from a poetic place. But ultimately, it requires craftsmanship and, unless you are a truly great artist — and very, very few people are — it also requires the assistance of other craftsmen.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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