Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The jig is up

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Staircase jig

Maybe it’s because we feel guilty about spending our lives crafting such intangible objects, but I’ve noticed that a lot of writers have a way of talking like carpenters. “Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry,” Gabriel García Márquez writes, and José Saramago adds: “If I can produce a great chair, even better. But above all I have to make sure it has four stable feet.” Speaking of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes says: “If she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.” And if I’ve often called an outline a blueprint, an even better metaphor might be that of a jig. A jig is basically a tool used to control other tools, a way of guiding movement and placement to ensure accuracy and repeatability. Many are standardized, but they’re also often whipped up on the fly, cobbled together from whatever happens to be at hand in order to solve a particular problem—like this homemade jig a woodworker made from scrap to drill pocket holes for a big display case. And the more you look at what creative professionals do for a living, the more jigs you find. (I owe this idea to one of my wife’s coworkers, who used the jig as an analogy for creating shortcuts while writing and testing software.)

There are many kinds of jigs, but my favorite may be the simple staircase jig, pictured above, which is used to make stringers, or supports for a staircase’s treads and risers. It’s just a lightweight, convenient template used to cut the pieces more precisely, and it will generally be seen only by the woodworker. Yet it’s a pleasing, elegant object in itself, a perfect marriage of form and function. And I’m especially tickled by the fact that with its two legs meeting at right angles, with a slight overhang, it looks a bit like the Greek letter lambda. In Lisp and similar programming languages, lambda is used as a keyword to introduce anonymous functions, or short, specific procedures created for a particular purpose. You could always write a formal named function to do the same thing, but in some cases, when you only need it for a little while, it’s more efficient to create a one-off tool. In other words, it’s a lot like a jig itself—anonymous, convenient, and made for a specific task. And the staircase jig stands both as a useful implement and as an emblem for the idea of making and using small, disposable, but thoughtfully designed instruments in service of a larger enterprise.

Pocket hole jig

I like the metaphor of the jig both because it hints at the intimate, handcrafted nature of these invisible tools and because it’s inherently recursive. If a jig is a tool for making other tools, in theory, you could have a jig that only exists to make other jigs, and you often do. The craft of writing, to give just one example, offers many examples of nested processes, in which each stage is shaped by the ones that came before. An outline, for instance, can be seen as a kind of jig: it’s cobbled together in private to shape the visible result—the story itself—and it both guides and frees the author’s hand when it comes to putting words down on paper. The outline, in turn, is shaped by countless tiny rules and templates that the writer has developed over time: to think in threes, to structure each scene as a series of objectives, and so on. And those templates, in turn, are determined by another layer even further down, which shades into what we think of as the basic syntax of storytelling. “Show, don’t tell” may not seem like a jig, but it’s really a tool that helps the author decide between the range of choices available. It’s less a value judgment than a guide that encourages us to make those cuts precisely.

And just because jigs are standardized doesn’t mean that the result will always look the same. A staircase jig can be used to make staircases of different dimensions and styles; all they have in common is the fact that their bones are sound, with each tread fitting tightly into each stringer. The rest is a matter of interior design, or decoration, although it’s often most beautiful when the underlying forms are allowed to show through. I often see the same process at work in my own writing. All of my chapter outlines tend to look the same: they fall into three parts, they have roughly the same number of story beats, and they fit within a comfortable template. If I follow this structure closely in the outline stage, though, it’s less because I think it reflects how the story will ultimately look than as a kind of sanity check. When the outline looks more or less like the ones I’ve made in the past, I know that I’m done. In practice, the result is reworked to a point where that underlying structure is no longer visible; a scene that fell neatly into three parts in the outline may be revised until it’s all buildup or all denouement, or I might follow my favorite writing rule and cut the beginning and the end. But I needed that jig to make sure that all the parts were there—and in the right places.

Written by nevalalee

December 23, 2014 at 10:08 am

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