Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Craftwork and art

I was running today at the Albany Bulb--a former landfill, now a park.
For many years after the landfill closed to dumping but before it became an official park, it was an art colony, and much of the spirit of that still remains in the space: many people--homeless, anarchists, young punks--still use the space for artistic expression of some sort.

On my run I passed a small area where someone had laid out brick fragments and concrete fragments, creating a small area of pavement. My first thought was about the amount of effort that had likely gone into laying out those bricks and concrete. The area was small--maybe it took someone an hour or two, I estimate, to gather the bricks and concrete and place them and attempt to get them even and steady. It was a small area, which made me wonder what it would take to pave the larger area in that way.

And that made me think about the process of craftsmanship, or craftwork, to use a gender-neutral term.
Undertaking a task with which we are not familiar, we start by learning how to do it. This may proceed under the guidance of a teacher or simply by trial and error, but as a matter of practice we would begin with the rudiments of simply making the object.
As mastery of the fundamentals develops, and as the task is repeated, the basic mastery develops, and, one would imagine, so too would monotony, which would likely inspire the worker to embellish the work. Which we might view as one possible motivation for the development of decoration: a way to add interest for the craftworker.
Of course things aren't that simple: we don't learn in a vacuum and the novice wants to try to do fancy work even before learning to do simple work well. Which may, in fact, help explain one source of problems we may have in our own work.

Our society is one that demands measurable results. And it demands them quickly. We are used to achieving our goals quickly. Writing is not a skill mastered easily; it takes patience. And when we want it to be artistic, that adds a level of complexity. And yet we may have little time to practice--if, for example, we have to work to support ourselves.

This is a rambling post--no real direction. I started it thinking about the process of growing and learning a skill, and how as the skill matures we want to test it further and further. But I don't that I was convinced by where that argument was going--it was an idea I explored that didn't seem to provide much. Then I was thinking about whether there was anything in that line of thought that might be of use to the writer. And I guess, maybe there are two lessons that I would suggest--1. That it takes practice to engage in the process of writing well; 2. that we are likely to master the simple structures and forms more easily, and therefore if we stick to using the fundamentals, we're more likely to create a solid piece of work.

In terms of sticking to fundamentals and avoiding decoration, I'll note that in some fine books the author starts with a vivid example or anecdote before announcing the basic subject matter. This technique is often used by student writers (I've tried it myself sometimes), but rarely with great success. And my explanation for that is that when we are less practiced/skilled as writers, it is more difficult to get our point down in words. When we hide that point behind an anecdote, it is more easily obscured than when we just state it straight out.

If I were to turn this into a recommendation for writers who are struggling to get their ideas down, I would say: be a craftworker, not an artist. Write down the fundamental ideas; write what is important to you in the simplest form that you can. Avoid embellishment.

Final note: learn to let go of work that is imperfect. I don't like this post much, but I worked on it and now, having written it, I can either throw it away and post nothing (unless I write something else), or I can post it (I could still write something else, too). There may be a time to throw things away and share nothing--say if you have a grumpy professor, or if you have someone special that you need to impress--but sharing prolifically, even if the quality is ragged, appears to me to be the better path.

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