Woodworking is a strategic craft. It often starts with a plan, but it may start with a irresistible chunk of raw wood that seems destined to be an expression of beauty. In either case, the goals are formulated, the steps outlined and the tools sharpened. Perfecting the craft itself isn’t much different. The woodworking his or her self is the block of uncut wood, molded and shaped through years of practice, mentorship and gobs of quantity time with other devotees of the art. Together, it is the Way of the Craftsman – patient yet active, contemplative yet expressive.
It’s also the way that I approach writing. I believe many others do as well, but I very much wish that this view was universal.
Only a few generations ago the art of writing for an audience was restricted to a small and rather elite class for the simple reason that printing isn’t cheap. If it went on paper, it had to be quality. That doesn’t mean that every story in every newspaper was a work of art, but a certain level of craftsmanship was necessary to even get a job as a reporter. The selection process that separated those who “made it” brought an aura of romance to the art. A lot of people ached to be writers, but few really made it.
Today, dead trees and the lead of the press aren’t an issue. There’s a lot more writing than there used to be, and just about anyone can find some kind of audience. For some people, the lingering sense of romance and a desire to see their name in print drives them far more than the craft itself – and they can create an audience in ways unimaginable a generation ago. On top of all this, the internet has created a greater demand for specialized writing to sell stuff, explain stuff, or hook readers into a new medium.
As the total demand for writing has gone up, the law of supply and demand would suggest that the value of it would go up as well. But with this offset by a greater supply, in many ways it’s harder to make a living a writer now than ever before. How did that happen?
Quantity replacing quality requires mechanization, and that’s what has happened. The craft of writing is being shoved aside not by the business of writing, which has always been there, but by the demands for more of it. Coupling this with a sense of romance left over from a previous generation only makes things worse.
I happen to believe that anyone can learn to be a better writer, just as I believe anyone can be a woodworker if the want to be. It comes down to the Way of the Craftsman. As long as people have access to the patient teachers and brothers and sisters who are dedicated to The Way, quality will have a place. Readers, too, have a critical part to play now that they have more opportunities to be writers themselves in turns – and reading is writing no matter what.
The competitive nature of writing today works against the Way of the Craftsman because it isolates writers behind walls of desire and jealousy. It comes from images of dashing young Hemingways, troubled Fitzgeralds, and pithy Vonneguts lost in today’s more mechanical approach. The ghosts of the past as well as the harsh realities of the present are both to blame.
Imagine, instead, a garage converted into a workshop. Anyone can stop by for a chat or borrow a chisel. The sense of expression, either our own voice or the subtle voice of the raw material, is put in its proper place – second to the craft that makes it possible. Now replace the uncut wood with the English language and see what the Way of the Craftsman can build once we ditch the fake romance and competitive impulses.
The Way of the Craftsman is what should tie us all together, just as writing itself ties together people and fills the spaces in between. The future of writing is that we either focus on the craft or give way to mechanical mass production. I know which way has a life I want to live.