Over time I have built a few pieces of furniture – a book case here, a table there. Wood is good and great pleasure is derived from the process of milling rough lumber into useable boards, shaping and joining those boards into something aesthetically pleasing and lasting. It’s almost creative. I say almost because everything I’ve built has been a reproduction of someone else’s design. I’ll leave the creative distinction to the works of genuine masters like Sam Maloof or Gustav Stickley; guys who left truly fresh footprints in the shavings on the floor.
Still, even in a reproduction there is a sense of accomplishment as a project takes shape, certainly in looking at the finished project, but even more so in the making and fitting of the joints. Decisions must be made as to what type of joint will be best for each element of the piece – which should be purely structural and which can afford a bit of aesthetic flair. Then it’s down to the business of applying craft to the fit and finish of each. With proper attention to detail, the resulting whole will remain robust over time and pleasing to the eye .
While I am far from being a master craftsman, I’ve developed sufficient proficiency in milling and joinery to allow me to take on more challenging projects with some confidence. My earliest pieces appeared to have been built by someone who didn’t know what he was doing, but this is only because they were built by someone who didn’t know what he was doing. Butt joints and screws and out of square boxes were my trademark. But as time went on both my tool collection and my ability to use them grew. I studied the strengths, limitations and applications of different types of joints. I practiced, failed and improved. Importantly, I learned that there is a difference between a hobby and a craft. When approached as a hobby, woodworking can be fun, but expectations surrounding the quality of the finished product should be tempered. Approached as a craft, working with wood becomes rewarding. Study and practice become requisite steps in the completion of a project, and the finished product reflects that.
There is a strong parallel here that can be applied to the writing of fiction. Having long approached it as a hobby, my work has been visibly out of square with loose joints and poorly sanded surfaces. Those with an understanding of the craft might have read some of my past forays into fiction and thought them to be written by someone who didn’t know what he was doing. But that’s only because they were written by someone who didn’t know what he was doing. Creative flair has its place, but that place isn’t in the load bearing corners of a story.
There are fundamentals to effective story telling; firebricks that prevent the writer from burning the whole thing down before the reader warms up to it. These fundamentals, set apart from any inherent talent a writer may have, must be learned. Conflict, layered characters, backstory, subtext, pace and story arc. Of late I have immersed myself in studying these elements, the craft of the written story. I am practicing, failing, learning, mindful that there is a difference between hobby and craft.
Before he could break the rules of rocking chair building, Sam Maloof had to learn how a rocking chair works. Grain direction, allowance for seasonal expansion, the correct joint for the job.
I will continue to join both words and boards. In fact there is a bookcase I have been wanting to build, its shelves to be joined to its sides with sliding dovetails. A perfect joint in form and function, one I have yet to master. And there is a book being written. If any good, it will read as one written by someone who has practiced and understands the craft of a well written story. I look forward to seeing its pages bound and resting in a well built bookcase.