Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I'm Not Shaping the Wood, I am Beginning to Shape Myself.

It may hurt to verbalize this, but I am not the young rock and roller I used to be. Where I used to drive home from work listening to Pearl Jam or Metallica, these days, more often than not, my relatively short commute finds me listening to National Public Radio talk shows. A few days ago, I listened to a program that was essentially on "Burn Out" and rekindling creativity. It was a very interesting and at one point one of the guests told a story that immediately stuck in my head and sparked off a string of other thoughts. 

The story, which I will embellish a bit from the radio guest's brief version, supposedly comes from Taoist Chinese tradition, and it goes like this.

One day a great, master potter was pushing a heavy cart, laden high with his wares along a path. His sight missed a sizable hole in the road and when one wheel fell into it, the top heavy cart swayed and tipped over, crashing and spilling his wares onto the road, scattering and smashing all his pots. After the shock of the accident passed, he took a deep sigh, righted his cart and began to clean up the destruction, salvaging what he could. Along came a passer-by who had seen the whole spectacle.
"Oh no," the passer-by exclaimed, "What a tragedy to have all your wonderful pots destroyed. You must be heartbroken thinking of all the time you spent making them."
"What makes you think I am heartbroken?" Said the Potter, "I was not using the time to shape these pots, I was using the time to shape my soul. I have lost nothing."

I make sawdust in the workshop pretty constantly, Often using whatever wood I can get my hands on, recycling hinges and hardware, mostly just finding something to do, even if there is no reason to do it. I really enjoy doing casework and joinery, so if I'm working on a project that has no master other than me, it often falls into the form of a chest, or trunk, with the occasional tall case clock thrown in to add variety. Almost all of these things I build find homes other than mine, usually because I have a tendency to give them away to friends, as presents or once in a while for no real occasion at all. I have been know to trade them to other people for similar goods and services, for example I traded my first dovetailed trunk to a blacksmith friend in exchange for two beautiful knives.

This habit of mine, to give away or trade things I've built, set off a discussion between my wife and I a while back. I was talking with her, mostly thinking out loud and bouncing some ideas off her about what I should build next. Her response was that it didn't really matter to her what I built, I was probably going to give it away anyhow. I realize after writing it that that may read like the beginning of an argument, and to be fair to her I want to say that was neither the tone or direction the discussion took. But those words stuck in my head and for awhile I have thought about it intermittently, not out of worry or concern but curiosity. The root question would be "If I care about what I'm making, then why to this point, haven't I cared to place an intrinsic value of what I'm building?" Historically, I have a hard time placing a measurement of value on things I have made, the obvious measurement my wife was referring to would be money.

But I did, and do care about those pieces I built. To me that is without question. So why have I just been able to give them away so freely? I read an interview with Jim Morrison of The Doors once, the interviewer asked if he had always written poetry. His answer was that he had written pages and pages of stuff in high school, but when he left high school he threw those notebooks away and forgot about them. That stuck with me because it seemed odd to me, and I never really understood it until recently. But what Morrison had instinctively done, and to some extent what I have done by fairly freely passing off those things I built, was to cleanse his creative palate of the burdens of past mistakes. I think it's a very Zen like instinct that plugs directly into the process of creativity.

Woodworking is a skill. There are levels to that skill. Writing is a skill. There are levels to that skill also. But at the other side of the journey of skill is the journey of creativity. The better you build up your skill level, the more expressed your creativity can become, because you no longer have to focus so intensely on the individual processes that make up a finished work. Jim Morrison also related how he wanted his poetry to come from his subconscious, that his best stuff came from what he called "automatic writing." He would just let his mind go, not think about what his hand was putting on the paper. He was no longer focused on the process of writing poetry, he had mastered the process, he was able to let go of his concentration on the process and focus instead on the creativity. The Zen focus on the moment.

Whether or not you appreciate Morrison's writing, or even the music of The Doors, is besides the point, because the concept itself spreads universal. There is a distinct difference between master and apprentice, and it's not summed up in skill level alone, surely once an apprentice learns a skill, and practices it thoroughly, they can execute that skill on a close level with a master. Maybe not with the same grace and efficiency, but the end product can be very close. What sets the end products apart then is the subtleties in a piece. The master is able to set aside his focus on the process, on the skill, and see the work as a big picture. The holistic view brings a better harmony to a piece in many subtle and unspoken ways because the mechanics of creation, translating an idea into reality, are automatic. The time has been invested to really learn the skills and the soul of the process, The time has been invested to practice those skills again and again until they come without conscious thought. The time has been invested and it shows in a finished product. Without the time, there can be no mastery.

What makes the master potter from the story a master. It's in the line that he is not heartbroken about the work that has gone into those broken pots. To him pots come and go, as ideas come and go, as seasons come and go. As an apprentice he was focused on the pots and the process, as a master the pot and the process have become tools of expression. Capsules of time and thought to be released into the world.

So, in retrospect, my freeing myself of those pieces I built allowed me to free myself of those processes and any mistakes I could see in them. It allowed me to focus instead on renewing those processes again in a new piece. To practice those processes again and again. As I shape the wood from piece to piece, I renew and shape myself, shape my soul if you will, each repetition moving me farther and farther away from apprentice and closer to the other end of the spectrum. The value I placed in those pieces was paid in the lessons I learned building them, far secondary to any monetary value, so gifting them or trading them instinctively made sense to me. Their dividends were already paid. I didn't fully understand at the time, but I am beginning to now. I am nowhere near a Master's level, but I think realizing the differences and subtleties helps you to better see the path you need to walk to get there. Like the old joke about "how do you get to Carnegie Hall?" and the answer is always, "Practice my boy, practice."




  1. I just read this again myself and I want to say that I am in no way suggesting that someone try the "automatic writing" approach of clearing your mind and paying no attention, while they are woodworking, especially with power tools!!! for God sakes, if you're firing up the table saw, please pay 100% + attention!!


  2. An interesting and thought provoking post, thanks!