Thursday, October 11, 2007

True stories

A couple of conversations in the past week reminded me of the value of a well-told story.

In the first, someone in an online discussion group expressed an interest in learning about how crafts used to be done, “eons ago without modern technology,” preferably by watching something on public television.

I responded:
The history of craft is the history of technology. MANU+FACTURE = HAND+MAKE.

PBS did have some series in the last several years where they took a group of people and placed them in a period environment (various periods) with appropriate tools and training in techniques. So if you watch those series, you get a flavor of the development of various technologies. Also, there’s the classic Jacob Bronowski series, The Ascent of Man, which touches on a lot of what you’re asking about.

But mainly, if you spend time with working craftspeople in various media, some of them are quite knowledgeable about the history of their specific craft. Next opportunity you have, go to juried traditional crafts fair. Or go to one of the many historical recreations (Old Sturbridge Village, Plimoth Plantation, The Farmers’ Museum, etc.) around the country, where there are generally collections of tools and docents or recreators who can explain their use in a historical context.

My issue, though, is that it’s a mistake to romanticize the techniques of the past. Throughout history, craftspeople have sought to improve their techniques and tools. They’ve been the innovators, the leading-edge, bleeding-edge, state-of-the-art, high-tech people, trying to develop the breakthrough tool (remember, Gutenberg was a goldsmith). They’ve been the early adopters of every new advance they could get their hands on.

So there’s no reason to attribute greater authenticity or value to an object made (today) the same way the Neanderthals made it than one made by machinery in a factory, if the objects are identical (not that they would be, of course). To take a specific example, I knew a guy who prided himself on making Windsor-style chairs without the use of any power tools. I think he even cut the trees, hauled them to his shop, and split them into boards by hand, if I recall correctly. Needless to say, his chairs cost ten times what the same chair would cost if made to the exact same design and with the exact same materials and care but with the judicious use of power equipment. When all was said and done, his chairs were just as precise and perfect as those made with modern methods. The only difference that would persuade a consumer to pay ten times as much was the story behind the chair. But the story as I perceived it was that the guy was not working in the craft tradition at all; he was just an atavist who had found a way to indulge his neurosis by telling a good story.

Bottom line: Judge craft on the quality of the product, not on the story.
The second conversation is one I’m engaging in with a manuscript I’m editing.

The author is relating anecdotes, but he is presenting them as training units. The rule in training is “tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell them what you said.” That’s a lousy way to tell a story, though: “I’m going to tell you an amusing story. Here are the things that happened. Here is how those things played out in the rest of my life, long after the things that happened happened. Here is why the story was amusing. I’m amused. Aren’t you?” Umm, no, I’m not amused. You are telegraphing your punchlines, and I’m going to put a stop to it.
Storytelling is
an art, not a procedure.
Hence, red pixels flow.

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