Writing as a Craft

When I think of a craftsman, I picture someone working diligently to make something with practical and aesthetic value. I think of my uncles, who were tough and crass, but also brilliant, skilled, and able to fix anything. It’s an attractive ideal and one I felt drawn to. My own pursuits in the “trades” taught me a lot about what it means to be a craftsman, and how it extends beyond being able to work with your own hands.

As I said, most of my Dad’s side of the family worked in the trades. My grandfather started a granite fabrication and installation shop in Lockport, NY, called D.G. Paterson and Sons. My Dad and his brothers grew up busting their asses on various construction projects. I listened to the stories they told about the projects and felt a draw towards that work. Last year I took an opportunity to follow the family’s footsteps in granite fabrication. For various reasons, it didn’t work out. Not to discount my own toughness, but I’m just not the same breed as the guys who pursue that career. It’s a whole other level.

I did enjoy the work, though, and learned a lot. One thing that changed was my perspective on work, overall, especially when it came to writing. I started to see how the steps I took to finish a kitchen island were comparable to the steps I took to finish an essay or blog post. I saw that writing can be a craft, too. The specifics are different, the two aren’t wholly separate endeavors.

In both writing and fabrication, you start with unworked and raw materials. Molding a blank slate into the finished product takes skill. Good fabricators turn incomplete cuts of stone into lustrous and refined tables, counters, vanities, and more. Good writers turn raw feelings and incomplete ideas into narratives with themes that penetrate to the core of their audience. Both raw feelings and granite put up a fight on their way to completion. Ernest Hemingway compared writing to “taming a white bull”. I argue this metaphor is just as relevant to a fabricator facing a slab of marble.

Both endeavors require an end goal. Fabricators work from blueprints and drawings, using meticulous measuring instruments and keen eyes to identify any issues along the way. Writers will construct outlines to direct what they’re going to say, and then work with editors to fine-tune drafts as they go. Both require a constant reworking of the same lines or edges. Writers and fabricators, alike, go over their work again and again until there are no errors and the piece shines like a gem.

In fabrication, you learn the process by watching more experienced guys do it and then copying their approach. I learned which tools worked on different materials, how to fix damaged stone, and the progression from step one to step done. After a few months, I didn’t think much about the steps. I was able to reach a state of fluidity in my work. I shaped the stone exactly to my liking without thinking.

Learning to write required a similar approach. In school, I made lists of words I didn’t know and copied definitions. I learned different types of writing and the tone needed to convey different messages. I found grammatical errors and rewrote sentences correctly. I figured out the progression from rough draft to final. Just like in fabrication, I can now reach a Zen state while writing. Time doesn’t matter and my words fly from my brain to the paper with little to no effort.

I can only reach this Zen state in either activity because I have a strong grip on the fundamentals. Learning the basics makes me more confident and willing to try more advanced techniques. I know I’ll fail, initially, but failing is how I got the basics down in the first place.  In the beginning, there’s a lot of exasperated cursing in both crafts, and a lot of asking wiser friends to show you where you’re making mistakes. After building the reps, though, it becomes more enjoyable and I can get into The Zone.

The truth is there are a million things I can compare writing and fabrication to. The crux to reaching a Zen state in any craft is patience. Patience can be difficult to cultivate. There’s pressure to get good fast. You could be learning to write, fabricate, ride a bike, ski, paint a landscape, take apart a car’s engine, and on and on. The pressure can get to you and demoralize you. It can make you the progress you’re making is insufficient. It can become self-defeating and lead you to give up.

After about 3 months of fabricating, my internal pressure almost folded me. I badly wanted to give up and go home. I had a year lease and had moved across the country to pursue this job, though. I decided I needed to accept the struggle and see what came of it. Slowly, I got better. I exchanged the pressure to get good fast for the patience to move through failings. I realized being a craftsman is a lot less about knowing everything about tools and fixing things, and more about being patient enough to learn. Besides, you never feel more deserving of a drink than right after you struggle your way through a day and know you did everything you could. That has to be worth something in and of itself.

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