Saturday, November 3, 2007

Craft Work

Yesterday, I went to an open house of the North Bennet Street School, to do some research for my new novel. The school teaches a whole variety of classes in fine craftsmanship-- bookbinding, jewelry making, violin making and repair, piano making, but I was mostly interested in cabinet and furniture making. In the full-time program, a handful of students spend two years learning to make handmade furniture, in a tradition that reaches back for centuries. The students I talked to had come from all walks of life--computer programmers, a coffin maker, a high school student, a stay-at-home mom--to dedicate themselves to making objects out of wood that are both practical and beautiful. They were happy to show me their tools and talk about what it takes to cut 140 dovetail joints by hand for a single piece, or to explain how hot sand shading works for inlay.

Usually, when I see cool stuff like this, I'm left feeling, "wow, that's really cool, I want to do that." And I already like working with wood--I've finished basements and rooms and have made bookcases and shelves and other pieces. But talking to these folks, I understood how it was a deep calling for them. And, what was interesting to me, I understood that I already have my calling. I'm lucky that way. Crafting a novel is not at all unlike someone building a carved chest or an intricate kneehole desk--each involved a detailed series of fine steps, steps that cannot be abridged. Mistakes are made and corrected. In the end, the final result is always imperfect, but perfection was never the goal.

Talking to the students and feeling their passion for their work inspired me to rededicate myself to mastering every aspect of my writing. And I appreciate the philosophy at North Bennet Street of fully understanding each step in the process. First semester students spend the first few weeks learning about wood, how to choose it and how it behaves. They also learn how to sharpen their tools. Hour after hour of sharpening.

Sometimes I think that I have approached my learning to write too haphazardly. I need to spend more time understanding the classics, as well as finding more books that I love and taking the time to disassemble them, to that I completely understand how and why they work.

The students talked about how time spent in the shop disappears while they're working. One of them said that's how he knows he's made the right choice. I feel the same way about my work.

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