Trade vs. Craft

I come from a fairly blue-collar background. Lot of machinists, carpenters, and truck-drivers in my family history, particularly on my father’s side, and being from the Rust Belt I married into much the same. I also come from a military background, and in both environments I’ve found that hard work and teamwork tend to matter more than intellect or creativity. As such, I’ve always sort of stuck out as the artist-type among men and women more accustomed to working with their hands. Still, though my family, friends, and former squadmates have rarely pretended to understand what I do, they’ve always been very interested and supportive. I suppose that makes me very lucky.

"We've replaced Barry's plumbing schematics with selected works from Catullus in their original Latin. Let's see what happens."

Writing is not always a sexy art form, I’ll admit. It lacks the brooding charisma of playing in a rock band, the eccentric flash of  planning an art exhibition, the Randian dynamism of designing as an architect. But it’s still a powerful form; indeed perhaps the most powerful and timeless in human experience. I think it’s easy for us to forget that, and this observation was reinforced recently while reading Sam Edmond’s piece “Construction Workers Are Assholes, and So Am I.” If you haven’t read it yet I suggest you do, as it’s very good and speaks to the discomfort I think many writers often feel when dealing with non-literary types, myself included. There’s a lot of culture shock and even defensiveness about about one’s course of study, and I even saw some fellow Barkers acknowledge questioning the worth of their own work, which I think is natural. I think it’s easy to develop a certain complex as a writer — to feel scorned and mislabeled by non-creatives, while also using their standards to judge our own work.

As writers, we dip into a space once known in feudal Japan as “the floating world’;” not the world of labor, or war, or politics, but rather that of art, music, and poetry. We speak to humanity’s higher impulses, to imagination and transcendence, and this makes us a focus of both reverence and disdain for those without our gifts.  But the truth is I think we’re too harsh on non-creatives. Not all such types are boorish, tobacco-spitting knuckle-draggers, any more than we’re all effete, American Apparel-wearing hipsters (apologies to those currently wearing American Apparel). Grammar slips be damned, being defensive about our work is like being a mechanic who scorns his customers for not knowing cars, or a tech-support specialist who mocks those lacking proficiency in computers. It’s understandable, sure, and even I’m guilty of it at times, but the sad fact is if all the world were articulate, cultured storytellers, there’d be no need for us.

My boy there on the far left: dirty, tired, and Selected.

My feeling is that our lives are defined not by the roles laid out for us, but rather by our gifts and our passions, and the dedication with which we choose to follow them. Example: I have a friend from the Army, we did Basic together, deployed to Iraq with the same unit. We may not have always gotten along, but he’s a standup guy and I’m proud to say I know him. After coming home I got out of the military and chose to pursue my studies, while my friend went into Special Forces. He’s made it through Selection, what we call “Q Course,” and is currently receiving more specialized training based on his future duties in special-operations. Now, a lot of people I know either want to do what he does, or feel inadequate that they don’t. Make no mistake: is it totally hardcore what my friend’s doing? Yes. Do I admire his strength and resolve? Sure. Do I think he will be very good at the line of work he’s chosen? Absolutely. But am I about to dismiss my own achievements over the last year — publication, earning my degree, acceptance into grad school — and go follow in his footsteps? HELL to the no.

Number one: I was not terribly happy in the Army. I had some great experiences, met some great people, but it was a hard and often painful time in my life. I played the game, fulfilled society’s expectations of me in that role, spent fifteen months in Iraq slinging both a sledgehammer and a rifle and I was miserable. I didn’t have passion or conviction for the job, didn’t always agree with the politics, and while my boy spent his off-time playing Call of Duty, I went back after missions, or coming off of tower-guard, and I wrote. In a time when I was bored, lonely, scared, it was writing — not my faith in “the mission” — that sustained me. Frankly, if put into his situation now, I think I’d end up burned out in a very serious way, but at the same time I’d like to see my boy get published, or get into an MFA program. I think he’d be as miserable in my field as I would in his, and really if you run the numbers, the selection rates for both are about comparable. Truth be told, both paths require hard work and are worthy of respect. It’s just… he just has his thing now, and I have mine.

Some deal in their trades; others in their craft. Some deal in swords and others in ploughshares. As writers, we get to have the best of both. We are a highly select cadre, regardless of anything society says, and we should never allow ourselves to be convinced that our work lacks value.

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Today’s Language Snippet: “He could feel his heart beating against the pine-needle floor of the forest.” Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Today’s Music Blast: “Thickfreakness” (Live on Australian TV) ~ The Black Keys

Additional notes: I will be in Spokane between July 3rd and 8th, house-hunting with the wife. If anyone would like to meet up or direct me toward points of interest in the area, feel free to email me at marlin.seth.s@gmail.com.  Thanks!

8 Comments

  • Shira Richman says:

    I love the caption on the construction worker photo. I can’t wait to see how Catullus serves the plumbing schematic.

  • Monet says:

    ” But the truth is I think we’re too harsh on non-creatives. Not all such types are boorish, tobacco-spitting knuckle-draggers, any more than we’re all effete, American Apparel-wearing hipsters (apologies to those currently wearing American Apparel).” — Thanks for saying that in a more appropriate and elegant manner than I would have in the midst of my fury. :)

    I don’t think we can help but constantly devalue our work because we’re constantly valuing and devaluing other writers’ work.

  • Steve says:

    Robert Pirsig said “does the Buddha reside any less in the teeth of a gear than the petals of a flower?” Many of the people who actually WORK for a living are very creative, they might not understand a split infinitive, and you might not understand the beauty of a camshaft with asymmetric lobes. Different worlds.

    • Steve Looser says:

      I really enjoyed this article and happened upon it looking up “trade vs craft”. I wondered how I should describe my profession of gold refining in a post about it. I really don’t know anything about writing but I felt obgligated to create a blog on gold refining to counter all of the mis-informtaion on the subject. It’s a funny irony that – I the uneducated and ignorant writer am blogging to help ignorant newbie gold refiners.

  • Shanti says:

    For the first few years being with a construction worker, I had to adjust to what I had decided to do: paint, write, and “create” things to sell. At times I explained myself and the process of writing, how much energy it sapped from my mind and body, and tried to justify it as a job. After a while I came to realize that it was me, not my significant other, who had the insecurity. Even in a supportive environment I doubted my worth as a writer/artist. Not anymore. :) I, like you, come from a blue collar background (except my mother has a degree in journalism).

  • Brendan Lynaugh says:

    This is a great post in so many ways. I may just have to write a whole post in response. And Catullus- that mildly misogynistic little emo-bitch, he sure could write lyric poetry. But “the words of a woman to her passionate lover/ should be written on the winds and fast-moving waters” Shut up, C-so sorry she decided to stop cheating on her husband with you. Why don’t you actually build something besides your little poems. (Sarcasm) Catullus changed my life during Latin V AP in so many positive ways.

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