Career as Craft

When I think of the image of a craftsman I think of an older guy in a cluttered studio. He is wearing well-worn overalls and a rough chambray shirt. The air is thick with saw dust and he is working with a chisel to put the finishing touches on an intricate piece of furniture- the swiveled legs of a chair, the inlay on a table side, or maybe a decorative flourish on a cabinet front.

The feel of my mental image is one part shop class, one part Santa’s workshop. But the overpowering impression is one of a person dedicated to the perfection of his craft. Even the tiniest details are wrought with a loving care.

There is something very appealing about this image of the craftsman. The simplicity of purpose, the dedication to quality and the satisfaction of a job done well all appeal to my inner worker. Sadly, as my wife will attest, I can barely nail in a picture hook to hang a frame straight. Any dreams I had of being this romanticized ideal of a woodcraftsman died in 8th grade shop class when my bookshelf came with a 10 degree slant.

But why can’t I apply the ethic of the craftsman to my own work? As a writer, why can’t I also have a simplicity of purpose, a dedication to quality and feel the satisfaction of a job well done. The answer is: I can. And so can you.

Thinking of our work as a craft gives it an almost sacred quality that allows us to more easily transcend the day-to-day grind of the job and see its inner significance. Granted, it may take some effort to conjure up this feel and view of our jobs, but I think with practice it is doable. At the very least it would foster a greater appreciate and self-respect in regards to what we spend our days doing. At most it will inspire us to perform at our best, take pride in our products and simply be better at whatever it is we do.

So how do we do this? What concrete steps can we take? 3 things immediately spring to mind: location, tools, attention.

Location. This is your workshop. Whether it is in a cubicle, a car, an office or a kitchen, the space where you work is your personal studio. Treat it like one. Take a cue from the chef’s world an create a mise en place, a french term for “everything in its place”. It refers to the set up required before cooking, and is often used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients. Set up your work space intentionally so that your day can move smoothly from one task to the next.

Tools. As a writer my tools are paper, pens, notebooks and laptops. My fantasy wood-craftsman would not use a cheap and flimsy hand saw purchased from Walmart (no offense Walmart, half of my house is filled with your items!). He would have a high quality tool, perhaps one that had been passed down from his father. He would treat it with respect, cleaning and oiling the blade to keep it ready to use.

So maybe I shouldn’t use the $1.50 a dozen throw-away pens and $.50 spiral notebook. Maybe I can skip a night of take-out and put that money into a nice moleskin and a quality erasable gel pen. It isn’t that these tools will magically make me a better writer, but they will tell my subconscious that I am respecting my craft. It is all about attitude.

Attention. This is something that is easy to get sloppy with. When we do the same type of thing day after day it becomes easy to have times where we just mail it in. Not every article I write has to be Pulitzer Prize worthy. Not every client call you make has to be injected with warmth and humor. But our imaginary craftsman does have to make every chair perfectly, because he realizes that each chair he makes is for a unique person who will only have the experience of this one chair to judge his work. And if we look at our work that way it really isn’t any different for us. This may be the only article of mine you every come across. Shouldn’t I treat it with just as much time and care as I would a prize worthy investigative article?

With a little practice maybe we can all be craftsman.