I built a violin, based on a Stradivarius model. From scratch. Manufactured virtually every part by hand in my woodshop. The finished product was decent. I was thrilled when I strung it up the first time and it made any noise at all.
But who am I to judge my own work? I took it to a local luthier, a man who has dedicated 40 years to building violins, knowing no other job. I asked him to assess the results.
“It’s … rustic. Much like I’ve come to expect from these home shops,” he said, as if people were bringing him home-made violins regularly. But I suppose I can’t be the first dilettante who thought it looked “fun” to try what others devote decades to perfecting?
“A nice piece of ‘folk art’,” he condescended, while tuning the strings to perfect pitch. Then he played. After a brief run-through, testing the full range of tones available, he lowered the violin, eyebrows arched in surprise.
“Hmmm? It has surprisingly good tone.”
With that, his face returned to that of the implacable master artisan. “Of course the corners in the C bout aren’t sharp. And they’re too long.”
Wait… “surprisingly good tone?” I will hold that one moment in my mind forever, that one glimpse that my work reached a jaded master and, even if for only the briefest moment, surprised him.
So it is with my writing. I’ve built a skillset that allows me to passably imitate the masters, occasionally surprise professional practitioners.
“Your voice, reminds me of Bernard Cooper,” my teacher said. “Your story is the real deal, if you can pull it off. Shades of The Glass Castle.” She, like the luthier, has devoted her life to her craft, writing. These snippets of feedback, from a workshop where I exposed an excerpt of my memoir to public critique for the first time, bolster me in the same way. But I have as many publishers clamoring for my book as I have violin impresarios begging me to build them an instrument.
And the fear hits: Am I only a passable mimic? I read other memoirists and see ways in which I have unwittingly done as well, and ways that they do things I can hardly imagine, or only aspire to. I find their technique creeping into rewrites, though their voice spilling from my pen is weak ventriloquism. I find some solace in returning to my book after reading someone else’s. The “other” has opened my eyes to flaws I have built into my story. I scrape them away, like the last ¼ millimeter of thickness from a carved violin top. Scraping, and shaping; testing my production against the recipe in the book. How will I know when I’m done? How many times can I re-scrape what, to my eyes, looks finished? I workshop chapters, submit to journals, trying to find what’s missing.
I return to my woodshop to build a jewelry box for my wife. She has stood by me as I quit my job to write my “real deal” memoir; believed in me this year-and-a-half, as I struggle to find my feet in the novel world of publishing, while simultaneously gutting out 230 pages of manuscript.We searched the internet for models, and when the emails we sent each other passed in the ether, they contained the same box. “The Angle,” by Steve Smith. A beautiful piece I replicated, using every skill I’ve learned in 25 years of woodworking. I took it slow, wanting to give something perfect to my wife, as she has given me.
But it is not perfect. And even if it was, it would only be replication of Smith’s artistry. I certainly can’t sell copies of another man’s work. Nevertheless, it is better than any work I’ve done previously. Practice may not make perfect, but it does improve.
Each new “draft” woodworking project shows signs I have learned and improved.
So I plug on, improving my craft — each attempt moving through requisite hours of practice — errors and setbacks included — that will allow me to one day leap into my own vision and voice; to bring a unique piece of art to the world. In wood, or in words.