Reflecting on the Craft of Writing

Excerpts from Richard Sennett on the craftsman in us all in “Labours of Love” (see The Craftsman [Yale, 2008]—and Kalefa Sanneh on the return of craft, i.e. slow thinking/learning):

The “end” [telos] of craft is engagement [flow] . . .
The carpenter, lab technician, and conductor are all craftsmen because they are dedicated to good work for its own sake. Theirs is practical activity, but their labour is not simply a means to another end. . . . It’s certainly possible to get by in life without dedication, but the craftsman exemplifies the special human condition of being engaged. [. . .]

It requires deep thinking, i.e. problematising and reflexivity . . .
All craftsmanship is founded on skill developed to a high degree. By one commonly used measure, about 10,000 hours of experience are required to produce a master carpenter or musician. As skill progresses, it becomes more problem-attuned, such as the lab technician worrying about procedure—whereas people with primitive levels of skill struggle just to get things to work. At its higher reaches, technique is no longer a mechanical activity; people can feel fully and think deeply about what they are doing, once they do it well. [. . .]

One learns a craft by making mistakes on purpose (i.e. the path to truth goes by error [“erratology” or, strictly, hamartology]) . . .
[T]he principle of reasoning backwards, from effects to causes, underlies all good craftsmanship. . . . Sometimes, in discussions of education, this recognition is reduced to the cliché of “learning from one’s mistakes.” Musical technique shows that the matter is not so simple. I have to be willing to make errors, to play wrong notes, in order to get them right eventually. This is the commitment to truthfulness. . . .

Thus, learning a craft requires “dwell[ing] in waste” [argos] . . .
This musical quest addresses one of the shibboleths in craftsmanship: the ideal of “fit-for-purpose.” In tools, as in technique, the good craftsman is supposed to eliminate all procedures that do not serve a predetermined end. The ideal of fit-for-purpose has dominated thinking in the industrial era. Diderot’s Encyclopedia in the 18th century celebrated an ideal paper-making factory at L’Anglée, in which there was no mess or wasted paper [!]. Today, programmers similarly dream of systems without “dead ends.” But the ideal of fit-for-purpose can work against experiment in developing a tool or a skill. . . [A] craftsman . . . has instead to dwell in waste, following up dead ends. In technology, as in art, the probing craftsman does more than encounter problems; he or she creates them in order to know them. Improving one’s technique is never a routine, mechanical process.

And the path to/of craft is roundabout [and aggregrative] (not direct [and cumulative]), i.e. “arduous and erratic” . . .
To develop skill requires a good measure of experiment and questioning; mechanical practice seldom enables people to improve their skills. Too often we imagine good work itself as success built, economically and efficiently, upon success. Developing skill is more arduous and erratic than this.

Craft involves three key dispositions: “to localise [concretise], to question [qualify] and to open up [contextualise and evaluate]” . . .
Three abilities are the foundation of craftsmanship: to localise, to question and to open up. The first involves making a matter concrete; the second, reflecting on its qualities; the third, expanding its sense. The carpenter establishes the peculiar grain of a single piece of wood, looking for detail; turns the wood over and over, pondering how the pattern on the surface might reflect the structure hidden underneath; decides that the grain can be brought out if he or she uses a metal solvent rather than standard wood varnish. [And it is “synaesthetic”—or, to extrapolate) embodied and embedded . . .] To deploy these capabilities the brain needs to process visual, aural, tactile and language-symbol information simultaneously.


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