My friend, Jim, is a guitar/mandolin builder who has carved himself a very respectable (and respected) niche in the local music scene – both with his instruments and his playing as a guitarist.
This past half year or so, Jim and I have been playing music with a quartet of friends. On the drive to our friend Joe’s (where we play) we often discuss our respective lives as craftsmen. We take great encouragement from this comparing of notes and sharing ideas.
One such conversation I found particularly interesting.
Jim was talking about his journey from his first guitars to the ones he’s making now. Very early on in his guitar-building career, he started really designing guitars as he wanted to see them. Rather than more or less copy the great guitar builders who went before (after all, that "paved" road would have seemed easier) Jim started designing his own guitars. For better or for worse.
Jim is the go-to guy in the area for instrument repair. As such, he rubs elbows with every important musician in the acoustic scene in this area. One such musician for whom Jim does lots of work is a guy who is an internationally known Old-timey player of fiddle and banjo. This fellow of great reputation is known for his abrupt manner. He calls ‘em as he sees ‘em. And he saw Jim’s early efforts as a guitar builder as Jim foolishly and needlessly spinning his wheels and getting nowhere.
This fellow suggested Jim should be copying the masters who have gone before (Martin/Gibson for you guitar players) if he wanted to build good guitars.
Jim wasn’t quick to dismiss this guy’s advice. This guy knows stringed instruments. But Jim wanted to follow his muse. He WANTED his guitars to be different. Still, Jim was quick to acknowledge that there really was no good sense in re-inventing the wheel. Surely (he supposed) a trial-and-error approach to his building wasn’t really going to net him the best results. Was it?
Jim chose to continue to follow his muse. Wise guy that Jim is, of course, he realized that his building wasn’t REALLY simple trial-and-error. He did at least have a leg up by virtue of his repair work. He daily saw how good guitars were constructed. He also saw how even those good guitars (the Martins and the Gibsons) had flaws – flaws he could hope to avoid in his own building.
As a potter I saw SO many parallels to my own journey as a craftsman…
At my age I should be beyond this sort of introspection and navel-gazing. This sort of “what if-ing” should have been worked out and left behind in my forties when guys are supposed to have their midlife crises. But I often wonder, beyond the nature/nurture thing, how different would my pottery be today if I had set a different course for myself.
Like Jim (and his building), I started out sort of “following my muse”. But I did so without a clue. I had scant education in clay. I knew two potters – my professor from college, and his professor. All I knew was that I really enjoyed clay. Well, that, and I had few other career prospects in my future.
I made a decision that changed the course of everything for me. As a young twenty-year-old, I jumped right in to doing art fairs. I had never even fired a kiln on my own.
Now, instead of either following my muse or learning more from “masters”, I was in the deep end and having to survive. I think that the fact that I could dog-paddle right from the start – and continue that stroke for the next thirty years – actually tells a very large part of the story of why my clay work is what it is yet today.
I was always so busy making a living. I didn’t give myself the time to have “learned from the masters” when I had the youth, freedom, and lack of commitments to do so. I have spent most of my career needlessly re-inventing a wheel that only on its best days is even completely round.
This is a VERY long post, and it sounds very solipsistic in its approach. I’m sorry for that, but to get to the point….
…how do you readers who are involved in creative endeavors feel as though you've fared regarding having launched your work in public at the right point in your development? Do any of you feel, as I do in my life's work, that you probably could have stood to learn more before diving in the deep end? Any of you feel exactly the opposite? -- that following one's muse is all that’s really necessary, and all the technical stuff will just come on an “as-you-need-it” basis?
Really curious. I can’t go back, but I’m just curious.
Maybe you figure that it really boils down to: “you got it or you ain’t” as regards the spark of genius that sets the best apart, or that defines excellence?