Monday 16 July 2012

On Making Things

I'm lucky to have the sort of mother who never throws things out - at least, not things her children have made, no matter how long ago or how badly.  I was over at her house the other day, helping her go through drawers, and out of one of them emerged this rather sorry-looking embroidered bird.  I'll explain more about him in a minute.

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. We make paintings, musical instruments and gardens. We make brain scanners, television programmes and films. We make homes. We 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 great deal of effort. I should know, because every spring I spend days digging weeds (mainly bindweed roots: thick, white, snappy coiling things) out of my flower beds. But what a difference the work makes when summer comes!

Children love to make things, and they ought to be encouraged to do so and praised for the results - even if the results aren't perfect in some adult, idealistic, Platonic sense. Writing is 'making something' just as much as modelling with clay or painting a picture: and primary school children especially ought to be allowed to experiment and have fun and feel proud of themselves - not to be marked and judged and compared and made to feel unskilled and inadequate. My brother and I were part of the Blue Peter generation, and he was fantastic at making things out of Squeezy bottles and cornflakes packets. He went on to construct model planes that really flew, and can now turn his hand to just about anything, including boats, house extensions, and beautiful, glossy musical instruments like mandolas. He’s become 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 (d'you remember balsa wood, light and fragile, and soft enough to be cut with scissors?) 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 by heartless, careless men from Pickfords. I longed to own an exquisite piece of Chinese embroidery I’d seen framed in a big house, smothered in birds and flowers – so I found a bit of frayed blue satin and laboriously stitched away.  And the result?  The puckered, lumpy, clumsy bird at the head of this post.

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. Here it is:

(You can see more of it on my website.) And although none of the things I made may have been any good by some unrealistic ultimate critical standard, it was the making that counted.

Even while I was making it I knew perfectly well that my embroidered bird fell short - far, far short - of the beautiful thing I'd seen and wanted to copy.  And no, I never became any more competent with a needle than that.  But at least I tried to be a maker. For me, the writing is what has lasted. I’m not an embroiderer or a woodworker or a musician. I'd love to be, but I know I haven't the time or the patience to learn the craft.  And that's the thing - going back to Chaucer again: 'The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne'.  When I'm writing I can't begin to tell you how many times I rewrite every page, every sentence. We - children - all of us - need to try lots of different things, so that we can figure out what to concentrate on, what to practice and get good at.  But it's all making, all of it! 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 says it all, really - the aspiration, the delight, and the inevitable falling short.  But isn't that why we pick ourselves up and try again?

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. Lovely post, Katherine.

    I love the idea of people as "makers". As you said, it's a drive that all children have. It's unfortunate that as we get older for those of us who do make things there is the emphasis on the end product (which is obviously a necessity), but which can sometimes take us away from the wonderful joy in the process.

    Funny that there's often a bias against people who make things. A lawyer acquaintance recently commented to my husband, who was an opera singer for years, that his work was far more important than my husband's because of the huge amounts of money involved. The making of money is more important than the making of art / craft / food / or whatever. (I'm always a bit suspicious of jobs which can't easily be explained to a five year old.)

    Your bird is absolutely charming, by the way!

  2. Katherine -- thanks for this lovely post! It is very close to my own heart as I have pieces of my own youthful embroideries and my daughter's which I treasure. And I agree with you that they share so much in common with the act of stitching words into novels.

  3. Lynn and Midori - thankyou! (Especially for the kind words about my poor little bird, Lynn!) And Midori, did you continue with your embroidery? (I'll bet it was better than mine.) I've often thought that Lucy Boston had the balance just right: in wintertime she wrote her books and made beautiful patchwork quilts, and in the summertime she tended her wonderful garden at Hemingford Greys. Sigh.

  4. I do still embroider -- mostly though to cover the cooking stains on all my t-shirts! The t shirts then become my samplers for new stitches. My daughter still embroiders as well (and writes poetry)and I love her work -- mermaids on her pillow cases.

  5. "The making is what counts." Yes, it's what separates man so severely from the animals, that we take up our part in the making of the world still unfolding.

    I enjoyed this post. c:

  6. Love this post, this perspective. And I love the sweet bird for all it represents :-)

  7. I, alas, can only make stories and poems. In all other manners of making, I am incompetent. So I put embroideries and flowers and birds and lovely fruits and singing creatures and wading creatures and creatures that run with four legs off the ground at the same time into my stories. It is a small victory but my own.

    Did you notice the wooden, carved dish rail above the drinks table that leads into the dining room? It has that very same Chaucerian saying about art and life.

    Were we sisters in another life?


  8. Goodness - come to think of it, I did! And yes you can pack so much of life into a story or a poem - I hadn't thought of it as compensating for being all thumbs in other directions, but you're right, it's a great consolation...

    I'd love to be your other-life sister, Jane!

  9. What a lovely concept of writing as making! I make stories, but also paint in threads. And sometimes someone's writing leads to other kinds of making. I love the works of Charles De Lint, which have inspired me to make bead loomed belts in Native American designs, not to mention playing the kind of music found in his fiction. (And he is a musician and maker of new music as well as stories!) Jane, you don't have to make crafts while you can make such wonderful stories.

  10. The Scots language still refers to a poet as a Maker (flat a sound). Thank you for sharing.

  11. Really! I didn't know that. Thankyou!