As parents will to children and teachers to students, most craftsmen seem to enjoy passing on accumulated wisdom in the form of pithy sayings. Some are humorous, like my carpenter friend’s reversal of common-sense advice that always leads to giggles. “Measure once, cut twice”, he intones with a straight face before we both laugh, knowing how many disasters from the past still lie scattered along that ill-advised path. Other snippets of practical wisdom are more serious and reverberate with truth. No less a wall-tender than the poet Robert Frost knew the distinction between a job and a career. He described it as the difference between working forty hours a week and sixty, a reality some discover too late, and much to their chagrin.
After years of varnishing boats for a living, I’ve come to appreciate other truths embedded in a multitude of old varnishers’ adages – including the rueful acknowledgement that there’s no such thing as a “last coat of varnish”. However diligent the varnisher, however attentive or cautious, there’s no escaping the realities of the physical world. Insects, pollen, humidity, wind, fog, rain, dew, heat and manic yard crews toting an assortment of mowers and blowers always are lying in wait, determined to wreak frustration and chaos upon the creative process.
When the assorted Horsemen of the Varnishers’ Apocalypse show up, there’s nothing for it but to start again, sanding, varnishing and polishing away until the wood is smooth, glossy and reflective. Sometimes, near-perfection is achieved. Usually, the “Rule of Good Enough” applies, and a satisfied customer takes the boat away.
Like every good life-lesson, the story of the search for the perfect final coat of varnish fits neatly into more than one context. Discussions among varnishers always bring to mind a story I was told years ago, a delectable story of another craftsman who lived in Italy during the rule of the House of Medici.
The man spent his days working in a studio where huge bronze doors were cast. His job was the last step in the creative process – polishing and burnishing their glorious detail. Day after day he stood, rubbing and rubbing with his soft cloth until the doors fairly gleamed. One day, a visitor to the studio watched him labor through an entire morning, certain he would tire. As the hours wore on, the man showed no sign of exhaustion and no inclination to stop work. The visitor finally asked, “How do you know when you’ve completed the job?” “That’s easy enough,” replied the man with the cloth. “They take the door away.”
It’s occurred to me recently that the story provides encouragement for writers as well as varnishers. Everyone who writes even the shortest piece – a term paper, a job application, a magazine article, a blog entry – knows the temptation to toil away, polishing words until they gleam. Those who engage themselves in more complex projects such as long-form essays, short stories or book-length fiction and non-fiction often find themselves in the same situation, albeit on a larger scale. Day after day passes while a finite number of words are rearranged an infinite number of times and in an infinite number of ways. Sometimes, the effort leads to a sense of satisfaction, a conviction that things have come out “right”. Just as often, an editor, a publisher, a deadline or simple exhaustion puts an end to the process by “taking the writing away.”
Whatever our chosen craft, the same dynamic touches each of us simply by virtue of our humanity. Caught up in youthful enthusiasm, we design and cast our dreams, beginning the process of creating a self. With the passage of time, we learn to shape and mold those dreams, dedicating ourselves to bringing them to fruition. And at the end – after all the decisions have been made, all the experiences lived and all of the responsibilities accepted – Wisdom will stand with her cloth, polishing our lives in patience and love as we await the day of completion, that day when even our gleaming and burnished lives are taken from us and we pass through our final door.