“People have a way of taking it for granted that all work is done for a sound purpose.”
– George Orwell
What are you reading these days? a friend asked. We were sitting at a cafe – one of those mornings when you purposefully make an appointment to keep yourself from working. Hmm, I said. Nothing, really. I’m kind of between books…
I tend to be slightly less than truthful when people ask me this question – for the same reason I don’t like photographing unfinished work in the studio. I think of reading as a creative act, so I don’t like discussing it midway through. Usually I name some book I read a few months ago. In this case though I really wasn’t reading anything – I really was between books. Kind of like being after one firing and before starting to make the work for the next one – which is also where I was – a fertile time but a down-time, outwardly unproductive, and a little scary – I always try to stay with it and give the down-time some room. There’s always the urge to just thoughtlessly get back to work so you can feel good about everything – I was trying to resist. Hence the mid-morning cafe.
Between books I sometimes read Grimm’s fairy tales – a year or so ago I happened to open my thick paperback edition of The Complete Tales and read one about a kid whose family sends him off to work for a ‘master.’ After seven years he says Master? I think I’ve worked long enough – can I have my wages now? I should go back home.
The master gives him a piece of gold the size of his head, because he has worked faithfully, diligently. Only problem – the gold sure is heavy. The kid starts off walking, but once out on the highway, in the hot sun, trades his gold to someone passing by for a horse – much easier going, and faster! Only problem – the horse starts off at a brisk trot, and the kid is thrown off. At the next opportunity he trades the horse for a cow – much steadier, and milk to drink into the bargain. Only problem…
You can see where the story goes. The kid trades again and again, on his way home, at each transaction overjoyed by his good fortune – arriving home with nothing, except for this sense of how fortunate he’s been. Seven years of labor – nothing to show for it but freedom. I loved that story. I flipped along and read another…later, I couldn’t find it again. I kept going back and looking – there was just something about that story, that humorous, ridiculous, repetition of the trade the kid makes, winnowing away any material gain from all his work. There was something in this story, for me, about being an artist – but what? I couldn’t say. Another book I picked up during this down-time, recently, was Elif Batuman’s 2010 book of essays. In her introduction she talks a little about wanting to be a writer – knowing, at a young age, she wants to embark on that as a career – but how? By studying literature, or even linguistics – or by going to a writer’s workshop? Is it good to learn by studying what other good writers have done, or just to get started trying to write? She describes an aversion to ‘studying’ literature and of giving a serious read to other people’s books since she wants to write one:
I remember believing firmly that the best novels drew their material and inspiration exclusively from life, and not from other novels, and that, as an aspiring novelist, I should therefore try not to read too many novels.
I was delighted to read this – in college I avoided majoring in English because I loved reading – I wanted to ‘save’ the really good books to discover on my own and not have them be ruined by lectures, discussion, term papers. Batuman discusses the roots of this kind of thinking, which is in the European tradition of splitting art from life – thinking experience is one thing, and understanding is something else – it’s not. She doesn’t exactly put it this way. But what of the other option – go to a writer’s workshop to learn to be a writer? She turns the workshop option down because of what she calls the
puritanical culture of creative writing, embodied by colonies and workshops and the ideal of “craft.” I realized that I would greatly prefer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?
Ah. I was delighted to read this, too. Craft is a bad word – everyone knows it – Batuman has articulated why. Art gives you some insight about being human, some relief from the pain of it, some inspiration – something to go on. Craft meanwhile is pleased with itself, sees its own hard work as a goal, is steeped in “self-sufficiency” and “hermeticism.”
One might argue that a lot of contemporary art suffers more than craft does from these last two. And that a well-made chair gives you more relief, when it comes to being human. But at the heart of her argument about craft, still, is the indictment of its focus on work, efficiency, purpose, product.
I gleefully finished Batuman’s introductory essay – she goes the academic route, by the way, but look – Now she is a writer. A novelist. Once again I picked up Grimm’s complete fairy tales, determined to find that story again. Home again from drinking coffee…a couple of hours spent on the couch with the big paperback and…here it is! Hans in Luck, the story is called, and the title is ironic, of course, because he is unlucky enough to trade away seven years’ wages for a stone he ultimately, as he reaches the outskirts of his village at the end of the story, chucks down a well. But then – he is lucky too – because he feels lucky. He may be a bad craftsperson of life – but Hans is a good artist. He has uncoupled hard work from value, and happiness from economic gain.
As I write, and re-read Grimm’s, the kiln is cooling and my day of lounging and meeting people for coffee draws to an end. Tomorrow I must take up work again – get up off the couch. I’m exhausted, still – it was a hard load of work to glaze, and hard to load into the kiln, and even the kiln itself seemed ill-tempered, like Han’s trotting horse. The craftsperson in me says good, job well done, take pride in your efforts, and even tries to make me believe that the harder I worked the better the pots will be – now, there is the bitter kernel of the craft ethic for you.
The artist in my knows the opposite is more likely, and that if I keep a spring in my step like Hans, those pots will show it. Sure – it’s possible that I really did just have a bad firing. It kind of feels like it. But the artist in me also knows that nothing motivates – keeps you in the studio reaching for work that really does have something to say about the human condition – like a bad firing. Either way, I’ll know tomorrow. I’ll get back to work, no more coffee shops and langorous conversation with friends – I’ll order a good thick novel off Amazon, and get out some fresh clay to wedge, and take up my place again, having followed either the academic or the experiential route to get here – to the studio – I’m never really sure which one it was.