In this digital age, many—myself included—find comfort in the witnessing of explicitly physical work. Why else are videos of masons, smiths, carpenters, and other makers and modders so popular? For examples of what I’m talking about, check out the videos on the Northmen channel. I especially enjoyed the making of an English longbow and the birth of a dugout canoe. Or watch Building Without Nails. Or this documentary about the crafting of a samurai sword. Or any of the videos in which Peter Sripol makes something ridiculous.
Watching such films compels me to wonder what I would do differently if I could re-do my life. I’ve talked about this with Molly too. We both think it’d be good to do something physical. To make things. To work with wood or stone. To apprentice in a trade. To be someone who works with their hands.
I can’t speak for her, but for me the allure of these vocations lies in their association with the ideals of mastery. I tell myself that if I were a carpenter, I’d learn all I could. That I’d study obscure contemporary and antiquated methods. That I’d care about what I did deeply. That I’d make everything with patience and skill, and imbue all I touch with love.
Such daydreams are illusory. Dangerous even, for I cannot do it all again. And who’s to say I cannot approach my work like a master craftsman right here, right now? I don’t need to re-train or change career. Instead of being seduced by the possibility of doing physical work in a digital age, I need to remind myself that a certain material or medium does not a craftsman make. Besides, I chose my material and my craft years ago: the word.
The word is my wood, my stone, my metal. The word is the thing I agonise over, the thing I am both master of and slave to. The word is the material which I endow with my heart and soul. It is the thing I work with and leave to the world.
This realisation illustrates a truth. You, me, and everyone else can all be craftsmen. We don’t need a cabin in the woods, a workshop or a studio. We can reside in a grimy studio flat and still be attuned to our art. It’s all in the mind, in the attitude we adopt and the approach we decide upon. Which leaves us with a choice. We can drool over the subtle and significant monuments created by master craftsmen, or we can endeavour to become master practitioners of our own craft, wizards in our own right.
So, what’ll it be?