Working with Wood, Working with Words

Augustinian Auden Copies 2013 - - 1My longest, most complicated project is now finished. Six years ago, I began working on a writing project that would become first my doctoral dissertation and finally a book published by a university press.

The box of complementary copies from the press came just the other day.

My book has nothing to do with woodworking; I wrote it to explain many of the theological ideas behind the poetry of the twentieth-century Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden. While I wrote the book primarily for other teachers of literature, I did my best to make the writing clear to non-specialists. If you’re interested in either poetry or theology, you might enjoy reading it.  Available on Amazon.

Augustinian Auden Copies 2013 - - 2Over the last few summers, I have split my time between writing and woodwork, and that has given me a lot of time to reflect on all the similarities between working with wood and working with words.

First, there is the question of purpose. I don’t write just to write, and I don’t build things just to build something. All my projects begin by identifying a need—books that need a shelf, pancake batter that needs a wooden spoon, or readers of poetry who need help understanding what they are reading. Thus, as I am working, I must always be asking myself questions like, “Who will eventually use this item and in what way? What features will make this item easy for them to use it? What flaws would frustrate them? Where will this item fit when I am finished making it?”

Second, planning is crucial, but if you over-plan every step, you will sap much of the joy from the building process. When I begin to make a piece of furniture, I always sketch it out to scale and mark the crucial measurements. When I begin a piece of writing, I always sketch out an outline with my crucial information organized. But I never sketch out the whole project ahead of time. The building process is a process of making but also of discovery.

Third, I must work with my material, not against it. Wood has a life of its own, and when working it, one must take into consideration the properties of different species, the grain texture, and even the flaws in particular pieces. When writing, I use words and phrases that have been handed down to me, and I have to consider their definitions and connotations as well as their histories and even their sounds in order to put them together effectively. Each language has strengths to exploit and weaknesses to avoid, much like each piece of wood.

Finally, the last stage is the most taxing. Most woodworkers struggle the most with finishing, partly because there is a lot of chemistry involved, but especially because it takes a lot of patience. The piece is physically complete, but one must still wait days or even weeks before putting it to use. For the writer, revision is difficult. It is hard to cross out or delete a paragraph that I spent an hour drafting, and it is difficult to rewrite sentences time after time in search of the best construction. Good revisions occur over several days or weeks, seldom overnight. But finishing and revision are important because, in both woodworking and writing, it’s the details of surface texture and refinement that make superior work stand out. The Romans apparently knew this. The Latin word “lima” means both a woodworking file and a revision of a document.

I am always looking ahead to my next project. I have one or two tobacco pipes yet to make, and eventually I will start on a dining room table and a dresser. And yes, I’m already working on my second book.

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3 Responses to Working with Wood, Working with Words

  1. Bob Jones says:

    Nice. Table – consider a trestle with a bench or two. Perfect for a big family.

  2. orepass says:

    Having watched a family member write a dissertation I understand the heart, soul, and blood that flows into it. Congratulations.

  3. As a woodworking/STEM teacher, I get “what did you major in?” question a lot. And my answer, writing poetry, is often met with a question. After a few years, the next sentence has become more refined. I like to build – whether words or wood, gears or lines, I just like to build. What doesn’t matter. It’s the act itself I love.

    There are more polymath’s out there than you realize.

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