On Craftsmanship

I went through a pretty bad patch at work last month. I was feeling annoyed at the people I work with, stressed out by a developing problem that I couldn’t seem to solve, and frustrated with myself for getting into the situation at all. I was even having work stress dreams (coming into the office naked from the waist up, that sort of thing).

A lot of this was based on fear. I am performing a role pioneered by someone with vastly more experience and knowledge than I have. Even after a year, I am still scrambling to catch up, learning on the fly. But I feel like by now I should know everything I need to do my job. This made it hard to ask questions, and consequently made me defensive and unadventurous. I found myself backing away from challenges because I was afraid they’d turn into cans of worms, that people would ask me things I couldn’t answer. Easier to say no than to find a way to say yes.

But I was rereading A Degree of Mastery, one of my bookbinding books. The author, Annie Tremmel Wilcox, writes about the time that she was an apprentice bookbinder. She spends a lot of time thinking about the idea of craftsmanship, particularly as embodied by the master bookbinder she is studying with. And, reading that, I understood my real problem. The lack of knowledge, the feeling of looming intimidation, was only a symptom.

I had stopped approaching my job as a craftsman. I was no longer taking pride in the innate quality of the work I was doing, but had got tied up in the politics of it all. It’s easy to do in my role, where there is a lot of political give and take.

To a politician, the quality of your work is one of many negotiable items. You take shortcuts to do favours, until taking the time to do something right is seen as an imposition. A craftsman abhors this approach, and would rather do something less fancy but do it right than do more in some half-assed way.

As a craftsman, with the priority on the quality of my work, I find the barriers to asking for help have diminished. If the quality of my work is my primary concern, then the desire to save face by not appearing ignorant cannot be. That’s the primary concern of a polician.

Going into work is a lot easier now. I even keep a bone folder on my keyboard (above the F keys). It’s sort of a personal emblem of craftsmanship.

                              – o0o –

Grammar notes: Although I am a woman, I use the terms “craftsman” and “craftsmanship”. My alternatives appear to be “crafter” / “craftership” and “craftswoman” / “craftswomanship”. Now, “crafter” sounds like “crofter” to me, and I have nothing whatever to do with sheep. And while “craftswoman” is fine, “craftswomanship” is just too awkward. (Don’t even get me started on “craftspersonship”…) Besides, I am confident enough in my femininity to be able to use a masculine term about myself.

2 thoughts on “On Craftsmanship”

  1. Sorry to here things got rough for a while, but I’m glad you’ve found a solution.

    Now you have to tell me what is a “bone folder” other than a medieval torture implement…

  2. A bone folder is a piece of cow bone, anywhere from 6 to 9 inches long and about an inch wide, shaped roughly like a tongue depressor. It’s thinner on the edges than in the middle, and the whole thing is polished smooth. See http://www.hewit.com/acatalog/p-bones.htm.

    It is used to crease the folds on anything paper. As a bookbinder, I also use one for various stages in the binding process, wherever I need something firmer than hand pressure to rub something down, or where I want to score a mark in paper, leather or cardboard. A good bone folder is a pleasure in the hand, smooth and cool to the touch.

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