On Craft


I recently finished reading Alain de Botton's strange and wonderful 2009 book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, which includes chapters on cargo-ship-spotting, biscuit manufacture, rocket science, and painting, among others. In the painting chapter, which centers on a British painter who brings his exceptionally fine-grained craft to the painting of trees, Botton writes:

Our exertions generally find no enduring physical correlatives. We are diluted in gigantic intangible collective projects, which leave us wondering what we did last year and, more profoundly, where we have gone and quite what we have amounted to. We confront our lost energies in the pathos of the retirement party.

How different everything is for the craftsman who transforms a part of the world with his own hands, who can see his work as emanating from his being and can step back at the end of a day or lifetime and point to an object--whether a square of canvas, a chair, or a clay jug--and see it as a stable repository of his skills and an accurate record of his years, and hence feel collected together in one place, rather than strung out across projects which long ago evaporated into nothing one could hold or see.

I usually bristle a bit at this kind of romanticization of craft, and yet Botton's insight here resonates with me at a fairly deep level. This, I think, after all, is what distinguishes people who take their work to a higher plane of expression and form: the ability to marshall their energies toward a unity of vision not only of things but of life. I have known creative people--I sometimes feel like one--whose energies are so dispersed that their creativity does not amount to much more than a loose assemblage of partially finished projects and a harried sense of time. I take this as a reminder and a goad to continue to ask myself this question every day: do the things I say "yes" to fit together into a coherent vision of life? Of craft? Are they short-term distractions or long-term investments in the "repository" of my years?

Samuel Thomas