Start With Creation
I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s
I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create
— William Blake
Not knowing what one is doing is no prohibition on doing it. We all grope ahead.
— Anne Carson
Someone asked me when I shared a video of chiseling rafter seats,
“How did you learn to build this way?”
I receive variations of this in comments and messages, usually when I’m posting about building something, or unearthing an old stone wall, or my other stone and brick work, or making various things like baby toys or wooden spoons, etc. My answers are more or less the same: these are somewhat self-taught, or at least self-started. This is me learning to build this way. Many times, like with this rafter seat chiseling, when I share something I am doing it for the very first time.
Inspiration, the admixture of genius and motivation, is sometimes described as a force that strikes us after some patient lull or waiting period. This idleness is a mistake. The Muse arrives to us most readily during creation, not before. Homer and Hesiod invoke the Muses not while wondering what to compose, but as they begin to sing. If we are going to call upon inspiration to guide us through, we have to first begin the work.
So it is an error to wait around for inspiration, or to demand some feeling of readiness for an undertaking, or for a teacher or some other golden opportunity. I think these slouching inclinations come partly from an overly-systematized experience during childhood school years, and partly from a fear of failure. In fact, when you stop waiting for others—for either their permission or instruction—and instead begin on your own, fumbling through, regardless of how ready you are, this could be considered one of the true beginnings of adulthood.
I think there is value in pushing learning and doing as close together as possible. I wish to learn like an apprentice with no fixed master, instead with repeated trial and sharing the results. If no teacher is found along the way, then the mistakes will be my teacher. Every undertaking is a series of questions and experiments. I believe every hard thing you do, for that matter, acts as a multiplier on the rest of your knowledge.
Failure is something you want to tempt. You should court it the way the bullfighter courts the bull. When I wish to learn something, I begin with this in mind. A meaningful first project should have sufficient difficulty that there is some real chance of failure. It is in approaching the edges of our abilities that we are really learning, and often simple projects feel more like delaying things, including delaying mastery. A chance of failure ensures your hands are firmly touching reality, and not endlessly flipping through the textbook, or forever flirting only with ideas.
When I decided to learn timber framing, I bought some chisels and a book. After reading, though I wasn’t really clear on what was involved, including the actual timetable for a project, or much of the technique, I went ahead and ordered the timbers to make a small barn (The Goose Palace). I had no carpentry experience, but I didn’t want to dally by making a small timber bench, or some sawhorses, or even a small wood shed. I wanted something with the complexity and gravity to make sure I would be required to comprehend it all.
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Someone once mentioned to me that “Write what you know” is not particularly interesting advice, and “Write what you’re learning” is much better. I find this distinction compelling. A benefit of prioritizing creation and then sharing it is that you might inspire others along with yourself. And if you are creating while learning in public, you may find others who come along and help you.
Mike (pictured) would have never stopped by if I was not working conspicuously in my driveway, every day, under a pop-up tent. But I was, and he became interested in my progress, and it happens that he has been timber framing since the 90’s. Had I waited for such a teacher—for he has now taught me a good deal—I would have never found him. But I chose to start, and he was drawn to my adventure. Only by virtue of starting the work was the intersection of our lives possible.
This is especially true online: People are much more willing to take an interest and help you along if you have already put in work yourself to show for it. It is annoying to humor someone dancing around the edges of creation, because most people never take any real steps, or worse, simply want you to do the work for them. On the other hand it is inspiring to help someone who has begun. There’s a bit of a silly demonstration of this in those viral videos that show a person starting to dig a hole or making a sandcastle at the beach, and a number of people come along to help. The principle is not at all silly: Enthusiasm is contagious.
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One of the great advantages of YouTube and other social media: if you are willing, you can become an apprentice of the world. Nothing you make has to be perfect at first, you are no longer searching for anyone’s approval but your own. The imperfect reality of creation offers more insight than the merely studied, if that study stays in the realm of the unreal. Of course, either creation or study are better than waiting for a teacher or other proper moment to come along. All I really hope to stress is that it is up to you to create proper moments.
I said some time ago on Twitter offhandedly, “If you have a ten year plan, what's stopping you from doing it in two?” This is what I mean. One can too easily sleepwalk into years of “I wish I could…”
Or you can start with creation. Pick something hard. You will shape something and it will shape you.
Let the Muses meet us all,
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The painting is The Painter’s Studio, by Adriaen van Ostade, 1647