Elmore John Leonard Jr. was an American novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter. Far too many people will make the mistake of minimizing his importance because he “only” wrote unorthodox Westerns and wiry, wry, crime novels — always seasoned with the frivolity of human foibles.
There’s a reason, however, that Time Magazine called him “the Dickens of Detroit.”
Leonard’s works were made into cinematically significant Hollywood films spanning seven decades. These films featured the biggest box office draws of every era, from John Wayne to Russell Crowe. Each adaptation was directed by the best, including Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh. You might recognize some of these: 3:10 to Yuma; Hombre; The Big Bounce; Mr. Majestyk; 52 Pickup; Get Shorty; Jackie Brown; Killshot. Mind you, that’s an abbreviated list.
There is a reason that I mention the films made from Leonard’s books. A film is a medium that requires the combined contribution of virtually every recognized art and craft. For a producer or director to read a book and recognize that the story, driven by the dialogue, can be artfully expressed via dozens of different arts and crafts are, to me, terribly significant. And in this department, nobody came close to Elmore Leonard.
The mission statement of American Craft magazine expresses this marvelously. Craft is, they say, “the age-old human impulse to make things by hand, in order to communicate.”
Think of all the different things that can be made by hand, “in order to communicate.” Landscape design. Dinner. A web page. A crime novel. Each can be crafted to be communicated to others, for whom it will go on to embody any number of things – love, warmth, security, happiness — through use or memory, for who knows how long.
Leonard was asked to explain his success as a writer. He summed it up in one, supremely succinct sentence:
“I leave out the parts that people skip.”
So, where do you suppose Elmore Leonard learned the discipline to “leave out the parts that people skip”? He got his start as an advertising writer. Yes, advertising. Why is this relevant here, in this particular space? Well, as a person who takes a special interest in the marketing of art, crafts, and the like, I sense a confluence here.
I describe what I do as “purpose-driven writing” rather than “advertising writing” or “press releases,” Why? What’s the difference? An example: After completing a week-long writing job that resulted in about 75 words of copy for a website, my client took the time to send me a thank-you letter. He remarked that the other writers who bid on the job had simply tried selling him on their “writing” – the words. None mentioned the necessity of understanding his business or his customers, or how they would convey this understanding, artfully, via whatever words they ultimately chose. My bid said almost nothing about words; it was all about how the process would inform expression.
I spent time over several days working to understand what the client needed the words to do (purpose), trying to find those words, and working to get these words arranged properly – flow, sound, and polish. Another way to say this is, when writing the “marketing copy” for the front page of his website, I was trying to figure out how to “leave out the parts that people skip,” which, conversely, entails finding the parts that people will savor.
Have you ever found yourself staring at websites, or sales brochures, that just go on and on and on? Do you ever read all that stuff? Or have you ever seen a website or other piece of marketing “collateral” that features “stock” photography and a “template” look and feel, as if it had been written merely to meet a deadline?
If your marketing materials – the things that are meant to convey the soul and spirit of your craft to the people you believe will value it – are written for website rankings, or keywords, or for the lowest bid, it really won’t matter if you get a grand Google ranking or terrific internet traffic, or if the job was completed under budget, or on deadline.
Because when your potential customers locate these materials and read dreadful text describing your beautiful art – well …
As Leonard made irrefutably obvious, the genre is irrelevant – great writing is great writing, craft is craft, and art is art, regardless of genre or medium. Almost anything we do in life can be art, if we do it with passion and love, with the intention to communicate that passion and love to another.
One of my favorite restaurants used to be the Cricket Café in Portland, Oregon. Every inch of wall space was decorated with finely-framed, hand-signed, original artworks. They were mostly abstract: watercolors, some charcoal, some pastels, oils – even some crayons and mixed media. Absolutely wonderful, colorful, brilliant stuff. The ever-changing display was one of the reasons I loved going there for breakfast once or twice a week.
One day when it slowed down I asked the owner which of the many local galleries was allowing him to hang its collection.
“Oh, it’s all from the kids at the elementary school down the block,” he said.
If we allow a broader swath of the world around us the potential to be art – imagine how much more beautiful the world, and our experience of it, will be.