Fiddling, hangovers and The Paris Review
A Secret Alchemy - the real thing

Just for the sake of it

Anyone who's dropped by here before will know that I'm always fascinated by analogies and similarities and differences between the practice of different arts, and last Saturday the London Literature Festival obliged with something close to my dream team, for a panel discussion. I'm halfway through social philosopher Richard Sennett's book The Craftsman: how could I resist hearing what he would talk about with tenor and academic Ian Bostridge, novelist and cultural historian Marina Warner and ceramicist Grayson Perry? There was so much said that I longed for it to be three times as long as it was, and even more that I'd taken a tape recorder with me. As it is, I filled seven pages of my moleskin.

Sennett's interest is in why and how people set out to do something - to exercise a skill - really well, beyond the basic practical and economic necessity of doing it adequately enough to earn a living. He's not just talking about medieval goldsmiths or Greek potters, but also about Linux programmers, and parents, and nurses, and anyone else whose chief motivation is to do their job as well as possible for its own sake. And in exploring this, he's separated out three basic necessities for what I've heard in another context termed 'mastery' of a skill to the point where we can call it craftsmanship.

1) The 10,000 hour rule. All the studies show that it takes about that long - say 6-7 years at 3-4 hours per day - for a person to master a panoply of ways of doing something, so that for any given problem or challenge, they have a range of ways to tackle it, and will therefore be able to find the right one for that particular version of the problem. It seems to me that this relates directly to Hemingway's assertion that the way to become a writer is to write a million words, and also to the fact that (at 24 hours per day) it takes a good chunk of our oldest child's babyhood before most of us feel we know what we're doing as parents.

2) Problem finding. You can't solve problems you can't identify. I remember realising (round about Novel D), that as described in the comment trail of Fiddling, hangovers and the Paris Review I was getting better as a writer, partly in that I got things right more often, but more importantly that I saw sooner when they were wrong, and most importantly of all, knew much better what to do about it. I don't think it's unrelated that of all my earlier efforts, D is the one which I wouldn't be ashamed to show - say - my agent, as long as she didn't think I wanted her to try to sell it.

3) Learning how to concentrate. 'Concentrate', in this craftsmanly sense, says Sennett, is not the passionate intensity of someone completely overwhelmed with the joy of creation. It's a relaxed intensity, a balance between passive knowledge (those 10,000 hours) and active looking (problem finding): a certain kind of ease combined with self-criticism. I've called such a craftsman the reader-writer. As Ian Bostridge put it, 'Ways of being in the music and ahead of it,' and as Grayson Perry put it, 'In the manual crafts physical tension will make things go wrong.'

I don't know about you, but these are all things which I recognise in myself when I'm working well. And just when I was thinking how much more interesting and helpful to writers this kind of talk is, than fretting about genres and recessions and The market for ropes, the conversation turned to how art is perceived. 

It takes experience to appreciate good craft, whereas the element of art which is about originality - or still more, novelty - is much more obvious. Even my limited experience of dressmaking and tailoring means I appreciated the V&A's Golden Age of Couture in a way that I wouldn't, for example, the equivalent about musical instrument making, or Linux programming. As Diderot found when when working on his Encyclopédie, the only way to understand a skill is to learn to do it yourself - so he did. So there's always a risk - perhaps a certainty in tough commercial times - that a bright new idea, only adequately executed, will trump an adequately interesting idea done with the most glorious craft skill: it's the 'high-concept novel' that's easiest to pitch in an elevator to a half-listening publisher, while conveying the exquisite writing that those million words have taught takes time and quiet and a willing ear. The comfort is that this is only about commercial times: at home, with the amateurs, is where craft - passionately doing something well for the sake of it, from singing in choirs to baking cakes to fine-tuning car engines - is as alive as it ever has been. 

Of course, the greatest art is both truly new, and beautifully crafted: it combines the great artist's unique thinking and his or her special capacity for making, in a way that's beyond the ken of most of us mortals. But that doesn't mean the rest of us can't try, just for the sake of doing it well.