Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Getting it right

Sometimes I think boatbuilding is an antidote to writing. After all, when I fumble through a scene or chapter, or even a sentence of dialog, it's not always easy to tell when it's right.

Bad writing is easy to identify, of course. Good writing: sure, I can tell when I see it. But nearly everything is somewhere in between, especially in a first (or eighth) draft.

Boatbuilding, on the other hand, tends to be much more clear. Draw a line on a piece of wood. Attach another piece of wood along that line. If it doesn't match, there's a problem. Close equals good; far equals a sinking boat someday. And there's a very real satisfaction in tightening up a countersunk bronze screw and watching that gap close ... close ... and finally disappear.

That certainty, the demonstration of quality, immediately noted, checked, and relied on, proves much more elusive in writing. It reminds me of what someone, John Ruskin maybe, said about the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty.

The workmanship of risk refers to work where the outcome is not certain, but rather dependent on the skill of the craftsman. Craftswoman? Craftsperson?

The workmanship of certainty is work where the outcome is predictable, even, and consistent.

Writing cursive by hand is the workmanship of risk; typing is the workmanship of certainty. A factory producing lightbulbs is the workmanship of certainty. Handblown glass is the workmanship of risk.

The terms, of course, are fluid, shifting like ghosts across the daily realities of what we do and how we work. From the example above you might think that boatbuilding is the workmanship of certainty. But what is less certain, less consistent, less reliable than a hand built wooden boat? It's not as if I'm popping plastic boats out of a mold, over and over again.

Yet writing a novel is definitely the workmanship of risk. So is telling a story. Which is what makes those risky endeavors so ... well, risky.


Peter S said...

When I wrote my thesis on this topic, I found a murky area between risk and certainty: the touch of the craftsman. If you view a product of risk you should be able to tell it was a product of risk. A product of certainty will reveal only the mold lines, the grips of the robot that made it. But what if the goal of the craftsman is perfection, cleanliness? Could the perfectly crafted wood bowl look as if it were made by machine? In other words, is it the imperfection of man and his handiwork that we find so intriguing? I give, as a very limited example, the popularity of "hand-scraped" wood flooring. It is done by machine to look as if it was done by hand. Whoa--paradox.

S R Wood said...

Peter - This is the sort of conversation best fueled by a glass of happy liquid and a fireplace. Or a long broad reach across acres of whitecaps. Or the otherwise numbing mile after mile of Interstate 40 across the country. Yesss. You know of what I speak.

But in the meantime:

a) I'm not sure I agree that items made by the craftsmanship of risk should have evidence of the craftsman ... this appears to be your point when you ask what happens when their goal is cleanness? When I boatbuild I strive to remove all traces of my own clumsy handiwork. The goal is perfection; the nature of the work means that I'll never reach it, and acceptance of that is part of the magic.

b) Some places -- I am thinking of the (perhaps rumored, I don't know) rule of knotting a flaw into an otherwise perfect carpet. Only God is perfect, and therefore by forcing a flaw the craftsman avoids the implication of the divine. O that such humility extended to Wall Street.

c) What if it doesn't matter? What if the point is not to compare risk and certainty, and the results of each of them ... but the process itself? Because forget about the result; the process is so fundamentally different in each case.

Want to blow your mind? Is the Earth the product of risk or of certainty? Far out, man.