Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 31st, 2018

The rough draft

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In his book The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi, the founder of the folk craft movement in Japan, writes of an encounter that profoundly shaped his understanding of design:

I was favored with a rare chance of visiting the Korean village where beautiful lathed wood objects are made. When I got there after a long, hard trip, I noticed at once by their workshop many big blocks of pine wood ready for the hand lathe. But to my great astonishment, all of them were still sap green and were by no means ready for immediate use. To my surprise, a Korean craftsman took one of them, set it in a lathe, and began forthwith to turn it. The pine block was so fresh that turning made a wet spray, which gave off a scent of resin. This perplexed me very much because it is against common sense in lathe work. So I asked the artisan, “Why do you use such green material? Cracks will come out pretty soon!”

“What does it matter?” was the calm answer. I was amazed by this Zen monk-like response. I felt sweat on my forehead. Yet I dared to ask him, “How can you use something that leaks?” “Just mend it,” was his simple answer.

Yang concludes: “With amazement I discovered that they mend them so artistically and beautifully that the cracked piece seems better than the perfect one. So they do not mind whether it cracks or not.”

I first encountered this story in the book The Phenomenon of Life by the architect Christopher Alexander, who uses it to illustrate the principle of “roughness,” which is one of the fifteen fundamental properties that he associates with living works of art. After sharing his own version of Yanagi’s anecdote, Alexander comments:

It does not mean that the old man doesn’t care about the blows he makes. But he is deeply relaxed about it, not panicked. And in this state where nothing is quite so important, nothing is so terribly, heart-twistingly vital, he knows that he can let the greatest beauty show itself—and this is the only state of mind in which the property of roughness and the breath that lies in a thing which has the “it” in it can ever come to life.

This strikes me as a profound insight, and it has important implications for how we approach the first drafts of anything that we do. I’ve frequently written here about the importance of doing a rough first pass on any project, and that you shouldn’t go back to read or revise what you’ve done until the whole thing is complete. This is basically a pragmatic rule, born out of my observation that I was much more likely to finish something if I pushed through to the end without looking back. When you stop to fix every small problem along the way—or, even worse, wait until everything seems perfect before you start—you run the risk of never completing anything at all. And the notion of starting with green wood, which will inevitably lead to imperfections, is a memorable expression of the fact that sometimes it’s best to just get started and figure out the rest later.

But there’s also something about roughness that can be desirable in itself. We tend to think of a rough draft as something to be tolerated until it can be corrected—we just have to live with it for long enough to get to the point where we can fix it. (This is the insight that underlies one of my favorite pieces of creative advice, which William Goldman attributes to the theater producer George Abbott, who was speaking to one of his choreographers: “Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.”) But roughness is more than a means to an end. Alexander notes that many works of art that we cherish have a certain rough quality to their surfaces, but he cautions us against misreading it: “We probably attribute this charm to the fact that the bowl is handmade and that we can see, in the roughness, the trace of a human hand, and know therefore that it is personal, full of human error. This interpretation is fallacious, and has entirely the wrong emphasis.” He argues that roughness is a creative strategy that comes into play when perfect regularity would fail on the level of the whole, as in a rug with a complicated pattern, which requires the weaver to maintain a high level of awareness at all times:

If the weaver wanted instead to calculate or plot out a so-called “perfect” solution to the corner [of the rug], she would then have to abandon her constant attention to the right size, right shape, and right positive-negative of the border elements, because they would all be determined mechanically by outside considerations, i.e. by the grid of the border. The corner solution would then dominate the design in a way which would destroy the weaver’s ability to do what is just right at each point.

And Alexander’s conclusion is worth remembering: “The seemingly rough solution—which seems superficially inaccurate—is in fact more precise, not less so, because it comes about as a result of paying attention to what matters most, and letting go of what matters less.” Which seems to me like the most important point of all. Roughness allows an artist to adapt to problems in real time, preserving that ideal state of attentiveness that arises when each unit is addressed on its own terms, rather than as a component in an artificial scheme. When combined with an overall feel for order, it allows for flexibility and improvisation in the moment, but only when approached with what Alexander calls an “egolessness, which allows each part to be made exactly as it needs to be.” And this also requires a paradoxical detachment from the ideal of roughness itself. As Yanagi writes of Korean lathe workers:

They have neither attachment to the perfect piece nor to the imperfect…Since they use green wood, the wares inevitably deform in drying. So this asymmetry is but a natural outcome of their state of mind, not the result of conscious choice. That is to say, their minds are free from any attachment to symmetry as well as asymmetry. The deformation of their work is the natural result of nonchalance, free from any restriction…They make their asymmetrical lathe work not because they regard asymmetrical form as beautiful or symmetrical as ugly, but because they make everything without such polarized conceptions. They are quite free from the conflict between the beautiful and the ugly. Here, deeply buried, is the mystery of the endless beauty of Korean wares. They just make what they make without any pretension.

This sounds like it should be the easiest thing in the world to do, but it’s really the hardest. And perhaps the only way to do it reliably is to make a point of working whenever we can with green wood.

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2018 at 9:12 am

Quote of the Day

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Seems to me most bad breaks happen inside a man’s pattern. He gets out of phase with it and every step he takes is between the steppin’stones. If he can’t phase in, and if he tries to maintain his pace, why there’s a whole row of stones ahead of him laid just exactly where each and every one of them will crack his shins. What he should do is head upstream. It might be unknown territory, and there might be dangers, but one thing for sure, there’s a whole row of absolutely certain, absolutely planned agonies he is just not going to have to suffer.

Theodore Sturgeon“If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?”

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2018 at 7:30 am

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