Until They Take the Doors Away

     

At the April meeting of the Houston Bay Area Writers’ League a fellow told the following story in response to my poem, The Task at Hand, and its first line, which reads, “Even the right word takes effort…”

As he told it, “A man worked at a studio in Italy where they cast huge bronze doors. His job was to perform the last step in the creative process: polishing the doors with a soft cloth.   He stood all day long, day after day, rubbing and rubbing with his cloth until the doors gleamed. A visitor to the studio watched him for nearly an hour, certain he would tire, but the man labored on.  Eventually, the watching man asked, “How do you know when you’ve completed the job?”

“It’s easy,” the man with the cloth replied.  “They take the door away from me.”

When I  heard the story, the parallels to a writer’s task were obvious.  Everyone who has written – whether a term paper, a job application, a newsletter article or a blog - knows the temptation to toil away, polishing words until they gleam.  Those who engage themselves in larger projects, such as essays, short stories or book-length fiction and non-fiction, can find themselves in the same situation as the door-polisher.  Sometimes it seems as though a finite number of words can be rearranged an infinite number of times, and in an infinite number of ways.  There are times when the effort leads to a sense of things being “right”, and times when an editor, a publisher, a deadline or simple exhaustion  puts an end to the process by “taking the writing away.”

 

 I experience the same dynamic in my own life.  If you have read my About Me page, you know that I varnish boats for a living.  Every profession and trade has its favorite sayings, and one of the favorites among varnishers is, “There’s no such thing as a last coat.”  No matter how diligent the varnisher, no matter how attentive or cautious, there always will be insects and pollen, humidity, wind and fog,  rain, dew, heat and manic yard crews with an assortment of mowers and blowers to bring frustration and chaos into the creative process.  So, we continue on: sanding and varnishing over again, polishing the wood until it shines – or until they take the boat away.

The same dynamic touches all of us.  In our early years, we design and cast and dream,  beginning the process of creating a self.  As time goes on, we begin to produce, expending more or less effort toward bringing that design and that dream to fulfillment.  And, in the end, when the decisions have been made, the experience lived and the responsibility accepted, wisdom stands with her cloth, polishing our lives until they fairly gleam – until those lives are taken away.

 

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Published in: on April 24, 2008 at 6:01 am  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Just to leave my finger prints in the varnish and let you know I actually took a really good look. Well crafted, visually beautiful and thoughtfully written blog – I will visit regularly. I have more than bookmarked it – it’s on my toolbar – right next to “Truth or Fiction” :)

  2. …yeah, it is kind of sticky (ugh) isn’t it! :)

    Good stuff, Linda! I’m still checking it all out, too!

    Thanks!

  3. Hi, Laura and Moonlight ~ I’m tardy, tardy… I really like this new comment system, but it will take just a bit to get used to it. I do like the email notification of comments. Now all I have to do is remember to check my email!

    Laura ~ I am beside myself with joy. No one knows visually beautiful and well-crafted more than you. As I was designing the site my goal was classic, and perhaps even classy. Your remarks suggest I came close to my goal.

    As for the writing – there is nothing I enjoy more than the moment when things “click”, and the connections among experiences appear in all their glory. Not everything I write will be interesting, or profound or even well-crafted, but those moments when my mind’s shutter “clicks” and the thoughts are captured like a wonderful image are worth it all.

    Moonlight ~ Lookie at the bottle that washed up on your shore! I see more and more bottles, all filled with wonderful messages… Moderate cheerfulness has given way to exhausted contentment. Not a bad trade, at all. Thanks for letting me know you’re around!

  4. Ahoy, Shore. You’re on vacation, and this is an old posting, so please feel free to take your time responding.

    I’m pretty sure that I have read a more recent edition of this essay. I like this version. Short and sweet.

    The theme may be applicable to polishing doors or varnishing boats, but for me it resonated on writing. Writing blog entries and comments is an avocation we share. For years engineering software was my livelihood, and that’s where this truly struck home.

    Software is something one writes. Unlike ordinary prose it has a specific functional dimension, for after the composition is done, the source code gets compiled into an executable file: a computer program. If the author works, as I did, for a software company, then the program will be sold to customers, who use it to solve their problems or accomplish their work.

    There are various ways to assess the quality of computer code. The customer is only interested in its functional aspect. How well does it solve the problem or do the work? Is it simple to use? Is it speedy? Is it stable?

    The software company measures quality in dollars. They want to sell licenses. They don’t want to handle too many tech support calls. Are the customers happy? If so, it’s time to move on to the next project. That’s when they “take the door away”.

    The (archetypical) programmer for hire doesn’t worry too much about the program. As long as he can afford Starbucks and pizza, he doesn’t really care about sales. What he cares about is the code.

    There are many ways to make code shine. It should come as no surprise, then, if the programmer wants to spend an inordinate amount of time polishing.

    Software code should tell a story. The story arc should be clear and concise. A generous minority of a programmer’s keystrokes go into documentation, which is akin to the gloss on a medieval palimpsest. The goal is that the code should be maintainable. If the original programmer should drop dead (or go on vacation, take another job etc.), one of his coworkers should be able to step into the breach and quickly become productive. If, years later, the program should suddenly develop a bug (or otherwise require alteration or augmentation), a programmer who resurrects the moldy old project should be able to make sense of it and efficiently apply a solution, even if he has never visited the code before.

    The code should be robust. If an error occurs (And it will! The world is full of hazards and unforeseeable contingencies. Somewhere in the world there is an idiot to trump one’s fiercest attempts at idiot-proofing.), the program should catch the error, not lock up or crash. It should display a message that a) does not needlessly frighten or confuse the user, b) is diagnostic for tech support, and c) narrows the search for the source of the problem, so the programmer can find it and, if possible, fix it.

    Beyond that there is scope, even in a small, simple project, for the programmer to exercise his imagination and ingenuity. These are aspects of the program that the customer will never see. No matter how elegant or intricate the internals of the code, the programmer’s boss probably isn’t interested. But the programmer cares. The innards of the code are his domain. Within that domain he is the author, architect, doctor, lawyer, farmer, parent and (for what it’s worth) supreme dictator. As Larry Wall says, “There’s more than one way to do it.” If the programmer had no other distractions, he might amuse himself by trying several different approaches — and polishing them all.

    • Bogon,

      Interesting connections you draw. Beyond that, on a second read I found myself thinking that we need to ship you off to Washington and give you a crack at cleaning up the ACA website. Of course, the truth of the matter seems to be that the programmers were forced to work within parameters that made a clean roll-out highly unlikely.

      So I’ll leave those thoughts be and just mention that the pure pleasure of creation has a lot going for it – whatever form it takes.

      Linda


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