Sunday, February 27, 2011


A week ago I called out Penelope Trunk as an example of the poetic non-fiction that David Shields is calling for. (Yes, OK: I finished a sentence with a preposition. Sue me. This is the sort of language up with which we will not put, as Churchill said.)

Right on cue, she has come out with another fine essay, this time on mastery. Her position is that she won't get into anything that she can't dedicate herself to, in order to achieve mastery. The examples she gives are heroic: she wouldn't take up dancing until she could pay for three lessons a day, with three different teachers, for example.

For these examples, or serious competitive sport, this is the level of commitment required, over an extended period, for real proficiency. A master tradesman would originally have had seven years' apprenticeship before he produced his masterpiece and was judged worthy of admission to the guild. This was not exceptional: it was the usual career.

La Trunk's point is, I think, that mastery is becoming a less common experience. Literature has long enabled us to slip into the imagined life of a master, and this has only increased with film and, in particular, video games. Why learn to draw when you can point your camera? Why learn to photograph when you can grab an image and tart it up in Photoshop? Why learn Photoshop when you can grab an image, ready made, off the dubdubdub?

There is a powerful meme as old as literature. The humble student is like a caterpillar, slaving away at apparently meaningless tasks under an inscrutable master. He finally emerges from the pupa into a bright new world of mastery. This is fine for an hour or two in Karate Kid, but doesn't seem to be able to compete with the short cut offered by Call of Duty.

So we have lost our respect for craftsmanship, for what it takes to master a trade. We genuinely believe that if we take a little longer and follow a manual, we can do anything ourselves. Master tradesmen make a good living fixing the mistakes of those of us who thought we could Do It Ourselves. And every bank holiday, the Accident and Emergency Departments fill up with those of us who underestimated what it takes to master the building and decorating trades.

And yet...

There are two routes still open.

One is to find somthing you love doing. I'm afraid, Penelope, that this means trying things out. And then when you find that something, just keep on doing it. Ideally in the teeth of mild opposition.

For example, all my children have had music lessons for a few years. Like reading and writing, making music is a basic ability that you need to work on before you know whether you'll like it. One made it all the way through her grades before leaving school, and could have taken it further, but had no time for it in a very full life. No problem: it's still there for her to pick up again if she wants to. One got to the stage where he can be heard picking at his guitar for his own pleasure when he isn't doing schoolwork or socialising. One dropped it as soon as he could. And one lives for heavy metal, gigging around the local towns as often as is legal at his age. We try to obstruct his more outrageous demands for band practices and have starved him of kit, but he thrives on any problems we throw at him. Drums. What were we thinking?

The point is that you have to love everything about your new craft. In particular, you have to love the training itself, however apparently boring and physically painful. You need to be addicted to the gratification of the next small improvement, day after day and week after week. Your craft has to graduate from something you do to something you are. (This is not without risk.)

The other is to find the mastery of small things. This is just as real. So for an hour or two you can lose yourself as a Master Polisher of Shoes.

Kurt has mastered shoe polishing, ironing shirts, yard work, blogging and much more. What about you?