Make Your Work a Craft
In writing about the sea I have learned the important truth that a writer’s subject is always far bigger and more important than the writer himself.Rachel Carson
Conventionally, the word “craft” may be associated with occupations like carpentry, plumbing, furniture, and bookbinding, amongst many others. Words like timelessness, artisanship, and tangible work may also come to mind. But there’s a reason why Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, is subtitled “A Memoir of the Craft.” The philosophy and approaches of craft occupations can be applied to writing.
I went to high school in Ontario, Canada, where the curriculum offers a mandatory senior English course, as well as a senior-level course titled The Writer’s Craft. I took both. That mandatory English course was great for the fundamentals including grammar, perspective, and thinking, and the latter course involved a lot of workshopping, learning words and techniques, and sharing of opinions. They complemented each other really well.
If the craft approach works for writing, I’d bet it could work in other fields as well. For example, in addition to technical courses for designers, there could be a workshop for the Designer’s Craft. Was a computer science course itself effective enough for there not to be one titled the Programmer’s Craft? Let alone the Photographer’s Craft, or the Painter’s Craft.
People have been writing for centuries. Perhaps time has reinforced the perspective of craft on writing. Now that we know this, I’m of the opinion that each skill or line of work could benefit from such an approach. I’ve heard a former client, a CTO at one of Canada’s largest companies, call software engineering a craft. Rolls-Royce, which charges half a million dollars for a car, still proudly positions its products as being handmade.
In the age of machines and commoditized “content,” the person who sees their work as a craft can develop an edge. Even though the craftsperson seems to go through the same motions as their peers, what’s going on in the craftsperson’s mind is completely different, and produces a different level of results. You may not always see the care someone else puts into the process, but you won’t be able to ignore it in the released work.
The craftsperson is self-reliant and imaginative; even in the endless repetition, the craftsperson can see ways to improve the work, perhaps during the process or after the craftsperson releases the work, and can recognize and exploit opportunities. Craftspersons can try new materials, or apply their skill to different contexts. They develop and focus their intention, purposely doing something in a certain way. They don’t mindlessly churn things out. They develop their own style, which eventually becomes something no one else can copy. For example, people don’t want sushi; they want Jiro Ono’s sushi—so much so that they’ll travel halfway across the world for it.
I propose that you approach your work like a craftsperson would. Improve your craft. Find places and people that enable you to work on your craft, not ones that stifle or discourage it. And set up your life so that you can work on your craft. Pick friends and partners who support you. If you feel the fire for the craft dwindling, find a new approach to it. Or if you’re interested in exploring a new one, then do that. Life is too short, and too long, to be a factory worker or a “content creator.” Be a craftsperson.
Obsess Over Details
Prompt: Allow yourself to obsess about a detail of your work for 30 minutes.
Obsession is one of the core aspects of craftsmanship. Detail, perfection, and progression are all fruits of obsession, an absolutist view on the correctness, integrity, or honesty of something. These are the traits that often provide a breeding ground for great work.
We, too, must cultivate an obsession with our work. For me, in my writing, it’s about rigorous fact-checking and correctness. It’s about speaking in my voice, and doing the work it takes to figure out what that even means. Sometimes, it’s merely about a headline or, more likely, a lede—where I constantly tweak it to try to make it better. Other times, it’s about finding a fact or verifying an apocryphal tale to support a point.
Obsession can create the energy that takes your work to the next level. I propose you spend at least 30 minutes obsessing about an important detail of your work.
Prompt: Allow yourself to give up an obsession about a detail of your work.
The desire for quality can lead to obsession. The Pixar team, inarguably masters at the crafts of storytelling and animation, also face this challenge. Sometimes, people on their team spend days or weeks on a detail that none of the viewers ever actually see. One example is in Monsters Inc., a three-second segment where Boo knocks over a stack of over 90 CDs at Mike and Sulley’s apartment. Pixar artists created a CD cover, as well as a program to change rendering for each CD, for a three-second segment. It was a level of detail that very few, if any, viewers would notice; the effort would have been better spent elsewhere. “Clearly, something in our process had broken—the desire for quality had gone well beyond rationality,” writes Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull.
As powerful as it is, obsession can also be a troubling occupation of the mind. Left unchecked, it also causes obstacles, or even causes people and projects to eventually self-destruct. Obsession can raise a standard so far beyond acceptable that nobody can meet it, creating a creative block. This is why I also propose learning to loosen an obsession’s grip on us, and letting go of it.
Many people become slaves to their obsessions, caving in to the impulse to push for perfection. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, this results in a complete piece of work. Many other times, though, it causes the work to self-destruct.
It’s important to practice letting go of obsessions. We must accept that each imperfection is not a failure; rather, in wabi-sabi fashion, each one makes the piece perfectly imperfect. Otherwise, obsession becomes a prescription for failure. An expectation or obsession for quality does not necessarily always result in it.
Find New Materials
Prompt: Identify or create a material you’ve never seen before, and apply it to your project.
Painter Edgar Degas once said to poet Stéphane Mallarmé he had a great idea for a poem. “But Degas,” replied Mallarmé, “You can’t make a poem with ideas. … You make it with words.”
Everything, including creative work, is built with raw materials. This might involve the ink in a pen, a type of paint, or the material in an instrument. Even in software, this could involve different types of plug-ins, brushes, and so on. In spirit, it just means to find more things to work with. Filmmaker David Lynch calls this “firewood,” and is constantly looking out for and stockpiling music to inspire his film.
This prompt suggests you find a new material to work with—one you haven’t tried before. It could mean working with a new genre of what you’re used to, mixing two existing ones to create a new unique one, or trying a new plug-in on your software (or a different one entirely). It might also mean finding new constraints or structures to channel your energy through. Familiarize yourself with the tools and techniques available, even the ones no one else has discovered yet.
Make Time to Play
Prompt: Make time to play.
“Without play, only Shit Happens. With play, Serendipity Happens,” writes David Weinberger in The Cluetrain Manifesto. “Work which remains permeated with the play attitude is art,” says philosopher John Dewey.
We already know how to play; sometimes we go without it for so long that we may forget. If you need ideas, go do improvisational comedy, or try a new instrument or a sport. Rent a bicycle and go for a ride. Buy a Lego set and build it. Draw a cartoon. Feed your creative practice (and well-being) by making time to play.
Prompt: Don’t compete with anyone, even yourself, for a work session. Lose yourself in your work.
Let go of your external expectations. Immerse yourself in the task at hand. Like Bono wrote about Frank Sinatra, pretend like it’s the last time you’re doing your work. This immersion naturally lets expectations, hopes, and fears fade away; none of it matters.
Comparisons and improvement can all be useful when you’re not working. But in the moments when you’re practicing your craft, focus on what’s in front of you and on doing your best. Everything else is an unnecessary distraction.
Whenever a thought of comparison comes across your mind, notice it, and then let go. If you catch yourself ruminating about it, tap it away like a feather duster cleaning a glass and bring your mind back to whatever you are doing.