27 August 2017

Writing as building, building as writing


When my father came to England last month, he brought me some tools. I was working on replacing the floorboards in the entryway of the house, but there was a long queue of things to do and I need a saw and a sander. He brought me some cordless drills and a circular saw which broke, frustratingly for him as the quality director of the company making the saw. As he tried to unlock the blade unsuccessfully, I thought of the poor person who would face the wrath of this failure. I was successful with the floorboards, and then with the shelves I put up, made of T&P plank wood I bought at a reclaimed wood shop that Yoko discovered and which is my new favourite place. You go with a plan in your pocket, but you need to be willing to improvise, to look at whatever they have and how many metres of wood you need. I stand there, feeling like I am competent, even though I'm not, talking out loud to myself and pulling the measuring tape off my belt to double check that I'll have more than enough.

When I was making the floorboards, I was still trying to save money, not buying more than I needed and trying to do it as cheaply as possible, a position my father gently corrected, suggesting that the five quid I'd save in wood wouldn't be worth the stress of having to go back to the home centre when I inevitably cocked it up. He was right of course — my father has built many beautiful pieces of furniture in his life, and talked to me about how much easier my project would be with a table saw. The house of Victoria Road is not big enough  for a table saw, unfortunately, but I already have my eyes on a shed and restarting some generational dream of building as building, rather than a metaphor for something else. My father got a satisfaction out of watching me fuss with the floorboards, I think, and I said that it left no doubt in my mind that I was his son.

There's an ongoing joke in academia about finding some other work, getting out and doing something more tangible. I've had a productive summer, working on three different book proposals while pacing around in the small wooded area behind the Quaker Centre in Bournville. The writing sorts itself out, if you give it time and persistence; if you're willing to let it percolate and don't give up. There's some measure of just waiting and writing while waiting, which I've managed to finally understand. In the second year of my PhD, I wrote and wrote and wrote endlessly, missing the point altogether and sitting awkwardly with my PhD supervisors as we all avoided the most obvious point of the meeting, which was that I hadn't gotten it yet, had I. When you're doing a PhD, you're constantly asking, 'Am I doing this right?' the response to which is, That's the wrong question, and no, you aren't.

Giving up on the right way has applications to building as well, where you have to be willing to pull apart what you've done and start over. You do it in life too. You do it in everything. Yoko taught me this, to stop using the word right to describe certain things, certain feelings. It's not about rightness. It's about being willing to pull apart whatever you've built and have another go at it. Sometimes you can re-assemble it, sometimes you have to replace something. Sometimes you have to scrap it all. Sometimes you finish, and something is not quite right, so you have to go back to it. Sand it, or stain a bit. Sometimes pulling it apart makes it worse, rather than better. Sometimes it's just not perfect, and that's okay — it's good enough. Sometimes the planks sit just right together and when you give a pass with the stain, once and then twice and then again, it's perfect. You can step back and look at it and say, I made this this. I did it.
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