Write well, craft badly



'Write well, craft badly' Contemporary Craft Review 1: 64 (1996)

I was making a silver ring. Susan Cohn at Workshop 3000 had generously offered a bench, materials and her time to initiate a writer in one of the delicate moments of her craft.

You couldn’t say I was ’good with my hands’. Even a simple operation like fixing a bicycle puncture is enough to send me to grease-stained desperation. I get by digitally. Simple repetitive actions like sawing, filing and typing reduce the mystery of a gesture to a set discrete, definable actions. These separate units can then be organised around an internal working rhythm. I was hoping I could take this ’sure but steady’ way round the demands of silversmithing.

I learnt a lot in two days. Filing silver was such a fine procedure I could almost see the molecules falling into the leather pouch below. I appreciated the power of such a simple device as a bench peg. Use of the flexidrive gave me first hand experience of the physical moment shared by jewellers and dentists. I wondered at the alchemic mysteries of soldering. It was a three-dimensional, interactive, real-time and very productive learning experience—until the final act.

I had decided to stamp a pair of words on the ring. This was to be a personal gift and I wanted the meaning to be just right. Like the bench peg, the utter simplicity of a ring provided the housing for a complex set of possibilities, though this time it was symbolic rather than material. Just two words, one on either side. Binary haiku. Ornamental palindrome.

I had spent hours agonising on just the right pair: grass/greener, yours/ever, end/up. I finally settled on the perfect duo, but I now had to realise it. After two days at the bench, the entire complexion of the ring was to be decided in an irreversible series of strikes. Restless in the stalls, my feet jostled for the correct position from which the launch the first blow. With a deep breath, I raised the hammer over the middle letter of the future word and let it fall to its allotted destiny. ’M’ took a sudden lean to the right. Out first ball for a duck.

I was devastated. The other letters managed to fall into place, but nothing could erase the ’M’ lurching out of line. I found some consolation that this was a unique expression of character, but it reinforced for me the boundary that separates the professions of words and things. For a writer the waste of composition—endless drafts, revisions and paragraphs consigned to the wastepaper basket—makes of language a very plastic medium. This is abetted certainly by modern technology with the cut and paste facilities on the word processor, and now with electronic publishing, the fluid state of a final copy.

I share with other screensmiths—film makers, digital photographers, CD-ROM producers— an unreal world where nothing is final, where undesired consequences are deleted and undeleted ad infinitum. This takes a gross mismeasure of life. Time’s arrow finds no target here. From the viewpoint of the world of the small screen, the craft workshop is a theatre of epic struggle and narrative suspense.

But this is only one perspective. For those whose working environments suffer from too much irreversibility, the picture is inverted. In the life and death world of an operating theatre, the craft workshop seems like a sphere for the simple pleasure of technical play. This is the reason given for the commission of David Wright’s glass window at the coronary unit at the Austin Hospital (see ’The importance of sang-froidCraft Victoria, Dec, 1993). It is just too much sometimes, working at the physical core of someone you’ve just been chatting with a few minutes ago. Much better to imagine yourself in a glass studio, fitting inert things together.

Exponents of the keyboard and masters of the scalpel see in the same craft two diametrically opposed worlds. There is ’craft the domain of material reality’ and ’craft the space for tinkering with alternative possible combinations’—real/play.

In her exploration of incompetence, the Work of Craft (1993), Carla Needleman asks ’What is the craft of being human?’ Such a question presumes that this thing called craft is shared universally. Such an assumption, though attractive in its generosity, neglects the very real and distinctive role played by those practices we identify as ’the crafts’ in the worlds outside them. This image need not be consistent throughout society, though the balance appears to be swinging towards the identity of crafts as a domain of fatefulness. Symptomatic of this is the question posed by the dying ex-captain of U.S. Enterprise in the latest big screen installment of the Star Trek mythic narrative: ’Did we make a difference?’ As more of the world fits onto the computer screen, the greater the need for a crucible such as the crafts.