One of the best things about being a teacher is having a summer free of professional commitment. Every year, I take the time away from work and professional responsibility to rediscover and reinvent myself. I take up new hobbies and stretch my imagination.
My grandfather is a master wood worker and cabinet maker. He studied under a West Virginia furniture maker, Lawrence Crouse, who specializes in antique reproductions. All of Larry’s furniture is made by hand, and it is of a quality virtually unknown and unavailable to the public at large. His bed frames are made from exotic hardwoods and cost thousands of dollars. The antique style wooden chairs are assembled without nails or screws and are indestructible.
My grandfather met Larry many years ago. He worked for Larry at the shop, and instead of money, Larry taught Pap how to build furniture. Pap built a gigantic wood shop at his house, and began making beautifully ornate furniture from rough lumber. He had loggers come in to his hunting property in a neighboring county and cut down old growth cherry, maple, oak, and walnut. The trees were milled into rough boards and air dried. Then he turned those board into jewelry boxes, coffee tables, toy chests, bed frames, chairs, and tables. He’s made hundreds of pieces for dozens of people. Each one is one of a kind. A stamp that says Handcrafted by Robert L Dugan is always hidden.
I built my first piece with him years ago. It was a maple captain’s bed for my daughter Riley. We were living in the apartment above the wood shop, and Riley was threatening to outgrow her crib. She needed a place to sleep, but the room was small. There was no way to accommodate a proper bed and all of her toys. I was a college students and couldn’t afford to buy her a bed anyway. Pap proposed a solution, build a bed. We drew up the plans and the dimensions. The box spring would be eliminated, and the mattress would rest on a platform cabinet. He had some curly maple posts leftover from another project. I would only need to buy a few, wide, curly maple boards to make up the footboard, headboard, and cabinets. In total, the lumber and supplies cost a little more than two hundred dollars.
Progress was slow because time was limited. We were both working full time, and I was a student as well. We spent late nights, early mornings, and weekend afternoons planing, sanding, measuring, routing, and cutting. At the end of the process, we’d made something from nothing, and I was elated.
It was the first time in my life that I’ve ever made something tangible. Something I identified as worthwhile or useful. Sure, I’d made money. I’d written essays. I’d always been a great student and a hard worker. I had my share of successes, and I was professionally respected as a new teacher. I was accomplished as a young man, but not in useful creative endeavors. Essays, even narrative ones, written for school were disposable. That bed was a concrete thing. I started with rough lumber, and now that lumber was a bed that my daughter could sleep on.
The term maker is thrown around a lot in certain corners of our culture. People who craft, paint, woodwork, sculpt, or make any of manner of things with their hands refer to themselves as Makers. But I don’t consider myself a maker, and I think the term feels exclusionary. It separates the category of makers from all others, which is fine for self identification, but not for bringing in new people.
I write. I read. I draw. And I occasionally build furniture. But there is a hierarchy to those passions. I build furniture when I need a piece of furniture. I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes from pointing at the pieces in my living room and saying “I built that.” I appreciate the craftsmanship of it when I see it in the work of others. But I would never build furniture just for the sake of filling time. Woodworking is a means to an end. It fixes a problem or fills a need. Furniture making is art, and furniture can be beautiful. I take great joy in seeing a work through to the end, but building is not fun for me.
Writing is the one hobby I have that I could never quit. I could leave behind art, construction, television, movies, video games, all of it, but I can no sooner quit writing than I could quit drawing breath.
But does writing make me a maker? I’m not sure. I bring characters forth from nothing. Blank pages are made into stories, arguments, and conversations through nothing but my efforts, but I don’t see authorship reflected in maker culture. Nor do I see myself reflected in my fellow writers. Does drawing make me an artist? I don’t see myself in them either. I feel like a visitor in all of these subcultures. I have a portion in each without belonging wholly to any one.
Truthfully, I’ve always hated the terms maker, artist, and storyteller. I think each of these areas have something to learn from one another. Makers deal in the tangible, artists in the visual, and storytellers in the audible, but can any of those be removed from the other? Art should tell a story. Stories should be felt. And how many things made by people are inspired storytellers?
I think that our culture is sick, in large part, because so many people are separated from the sensation of starting with nothing and ending with something. We work bullshit jobs- devoid of real meaning. We have our foolish hobbies and our worthless technology. We play video games, and we think ourselves accomplished for beating them. We scroll mindlessly through memes and headlines and consider ourselves well informed while we shovel junk food into our faces. The thing that is most missing from American life is substance. Our view of the world is the short one, and as a result, many of us are unwilling to practice patience or sacrifice. And patience and sacrifice are taught by stubbornly dragging something into being.
Writing this essay has taken me a substantial amount of effort. This essay is the culmination of all of my experience writing and reading. It constitutes thousands of hours of careful study. Even as I write this I am sacrificing time that I could spend doing other things. I must have the patience to contend with my own mind in seeking the perfect word.
Anyone who builds furniture knows the maxim “measure twice and cut once.” That saying offers both practical and metaphorical advice. After I built my daughter’s bed, I decided I wanted to build a book case for my bedroom. I planed the rough lumber and made it square. I formed all of my pieces, and when I was ready to put it together, I realized that instead of making a right side and a left side for my book shelf, I’d made two right sides. Several days work were undone in a single moment of realization. That experience is humbling. I suffered as a result of my foolhardiness. I’d built one piece of furniture and thought I knew something. I wasn’t patient. I tried to jump ahead before I was ready.
The good craftsman- be he a writer, artist, or carpenter- knows how to wait. And he knows the joy of waiting, and the joy of creation.