Monday, 19 July 2010

On Making

In Chaucer’s time, the word for a poet or author was ‘a maker’ - as witness the Scots poet William Dunbar’s luminous ‘Lament for the Makers’, in which he lists poet after poet taken by ‘the strong unmerciful tyrant’, death:

‘He has done piteouslie devour
The noble Chaucer, of makers flower;
The Monk of Bery, and Gower all three:
Timor mortis conturbat me.’

(In fact, damn it, go and read the poem first, and come back and read this after you’ve done.)

‘Maker’: I’ve always liked it. It’s less high-falutin’ than ‘author’ or ‘poet’: it links us inextricably – as we ought to be linked – with every other sort of human creativity. People make furniture. They make paintings, musical instruments and gardens. They make brain scanners, television programmes and films. They make homes. They make love – which as Ursula K Le Guin once wrote in the ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ (go and read that too), ‘doesn’t just sit there like a stone; it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.’ None of these things (furniture, gardens, brain scanners etc) just happen. You can’t make anything worth having without a lot of effort. I should know, because I spent days this summer digging bindweed roots (thick, white, snappy coiling things) out of the rosebed.  And last year I had to do exactly the same thing.  But if I didn't, the garden would disappear under the weeds, and a garden is a lovesome thing, God wot. 

My brother and I were part of the 'Blue Peter' generation (for North American readers, 'Blue Peter' was and is a much-loved and long-running children's TV show, showcasing an idiosyncratic mixture of outdoor adventure, topical interest, pets, cookery and model-making).  My brother was fantastic at making things out of Squeezy bottles and cornflakes packets. He went on to construct balsa wood planes that really flew, and can now turn his hand to just about anything, including boats, house extensions, and beautiful, glossy musical instruments like this mandola. He’s also an accomplished folk musician who can compose his own tunes.

Me, I tried. I longed to own a model sailing ship, so I made my own very ugly one out of balsa wood, and painted it yellow. It had so many holes in the hull, it would have sunk like a stone, but I made it and loved it till it was squashed flat in a house removal. I wanted to own an exquisite piece of Chinese embroidery I’d seen, smothered in birds and flowers – so I got a bit of frayed blue satin and laboriously stitched away at a puckered, lumpy, clumsy bird.

I wanted a miniature Chinese garden like one I’d read about in a book – so I borrowed a tray and arranged gravel and stones and moss around a tin lid (for the pool) and stood some china ornaments around it till the moss dried and the tray got knocked over. Oh, and I wanted an eighth Narnia book, so I got an old blue notebook and wrote my own. (You can see it here if you like.) And though none of the things I made may have been any good (by some ultimate critical standard), it was the making of them that counted.

While I was still at school, teachers and other random adults would sometimes remind us that 'it doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how you play the game'.  It did matter if we won or lost (and those same adults secretly thought so, and we knew it) so we didn't pay too much attention.  Still, the moral was well meant.  For winning or losing is pointless unless you already care about the game. I was no good at sports, didn't enjoy the game, and therefore neither cared nor tried: but sometimes now, if I'm talking to children in schools about writing, I tell them it's very much like practising a sport.  You can have talent and do nothing with it.  Or you can have talent and enjoy writing as a hobby.  Or you can have talent, and practise regularly, and study technique, and with a bit of luck thrown in you may become a professional.  Even in today's celebrity culture, children readily understand that you don't get to play for Manchester United, or in the Men's or Women's Finals at Wimbledon, without putting in a lot of hard work.  (Maybe that's why sportsmen and women are so revered.)  But it's all right to do things as well as you can.  We should let ourselves off sometimes.  Children (and adults) need to remember that it's all right not to play football as well as David Beckham.  We have the right to enjoy doing things at our own level.

For me, the writing is what has lasted.  I'm never likely to become an embroiderer or woodcarver.  But it’s all making, and any child who hammers a nail in straight, paints a picture or bakes brownies knows how good it feels. 

Here’s a poem by Robert Bridges which I learned by heart when I was about nine. It says, so beautifully, exactly what I feel.

I love all beauteous things,
I seek and adore them.
God hath no better praise,
And Man in his hasty days
Is honoured for them.

I too will something make,
And joy in the making,
Although tomorrow it seem
Like the empty words of a dream,
Remembered on waking.


  1. Fabulous post Kath, the act of making is so central to being human, I think. And delighting in the making, and persevering, learning, developing, all go to create such rich experiences. Gardens, bread, websites, poems, lumpy birds on scraps of satin. The breath of life.

  2. Great post. Very interesting article here about the value of making things:

  3. What a wonderful post, Kath. Brilliant stuff. Thank you!

  4. I remember making a miniature garden too! And clothes, and a carved wooden owl called Cedric... lovely post.

  5. Part of making is being lost in the doing - creating for the very sake of it. Perhaps I'm being a bit too Zen - but I do feel it can be meditative and spiritual.

  6. We had a radio programme here in Australia called the Argonauts. Being radio it could not be quite as diverse as Blue Peter but we loved it! There were boats with 50 Argonauts, each named after a Greek character and you could work your way up to the Golden Fleece by contributing. I'll put a bit more on my blog!

  7. In Canada we had Mr. Dressup and he was a beloved television figure for many years. I was always fascinated by his ability to draw wonderful pictures using a few simple lines, and the crafts made out of ordinary things. I always wanted to follow his lead but I am, unfortunately, all thumbs. My sister is an artist and crafter and my children are all excellent at creating something out of nothing. My husband is an excellent cook, and I couldn't compete with him if he were blindfolded and had a clothespin on his nose. Words are the only medium where I feel that I can dive in, mess about and come up with something that at least satisfies me in the short term.
    I love this warm and witty post. It helps me to laugh at myself, in a good way.

  8. Thanks, all! I wrote this post as a sort of reminder to myself to relax a bit - there's no point in making anything if you can't enjoy doing it, and just at the moment lots of other stressful stuff is going on and I'm finding it hard to find writing time - and then stressing about THAT.

    Let me get my beloved but extremely characterful mother moved into a new house, and then let the writing flow...!

  9. And do visit Catdownunder -
    the Argonauts radio programme sounds to have been wonderful.

  10. I love the term 'maker'. My father used to prefer to call himself a 'maker' rather than a 'poet'. You post just brought back a heap of fond memories.

  11. I myself spend most of my making on my garden...

    I love books that feature craft, or gardening, or making a home more than just about anything! My favorite Lloyd Alexander, for instance, is Taran Wander, for the time he spends apprenticing himself to the various crafts....

  12. Lovely!
    One of the ways I am able to not beat myself up about not writing (like at the moment when we are settling into a new house and a new town) is to remind myself of the other things I make. Making a house, for instance, or some loaves of bread for my parent's visit, or knitting a scarf for my sister. I think that any expression of creativity is a method of keeping that part of our brains and awareness active and busy.
    By the way, I fell in love with chinese embroidery as a child too and laboriously drew and then stitched a coconut palm and monkey. I wish I still had it because it would remind me of what I could achieve if the desire and will were present.

  13. The impulse to create is such an important part of being human. And of course, one of the greatest books in the world's history begins with a series of vast creative acts.

    As a teacher, I am disappointed by how little creativity is encouraged in schools these days. But I do try to let kids know that painting and performing aren't the only ways to create--that cooking and gardening and various types of fiddling around are also creative, and thus uniquely satisfying to the human heart.

    Thanks for another thoughtful post!

  14. Thankyou Kate - and how important that message is for children. And all of us!

  15. Lovely post. Was your miniature garden inspired by Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, perchance? I did the same after discovering it.
    House-hunting the pits unless you tell yourself it's like falling in love,serendipitous. (Amanda)

  16. It might have been! One of my daughters was certainly inspired by that. Rumer Godden a brilliant writer.