writing and real work

The NYT extract from Matthew B. Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft resonated with me and I wondered what others thought. After taking his PhD in philosophy, Crawford became a motorbike mechanic, and the essay deals with why he finds so much more satisfaction working with his hands repairing bikes than from much more prestigious white collar jobs:

In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire.

As in any learned profession, you just have to know a lot. If the motorcycle is 30 years old, from an obscure maker that went out of business 20 years ago, its tendencies are known mostly through lore. It would probably be impossible to do such work in isolation, without access to a collective historical memory; you have to be embedded in a community of mechanic-antiquarians. These relationships are maintained by telephone, in a network of reciprocal favors that spans the country. My most reliable source, Fred, has such an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure European motorcycles that all I have been able to offer him in exchange is deliveries of obscure European beer.

There is always a risk of introducing new complications when working on old motorcycles, and this enters the diagnostic logic. Measured in likelihood of screw-ups, the cost is not identical for all avenues of inquiry when deciding which hypothesis to pursue. Imagine you’re trying to figure out why a bike won’t start. The fasteners holding the engine covers on 1970s-era Hondas are Phillips head, and they are almost always rounded out and corroded. Do you really want to check the condition of the starter clutch if each of eight screws will need to be drilled out and extracted, risking damage to the engine case? Such impediments have to be taken into account. The attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand. The mechanic’s proper response to the situation cannot be anticipated by a set of rules or algorithms.

In part, the attraction seems to be immediacy. He contrasts his repair work with a more high-paying white collar job in which his task was to provide summaries, something he found utterly hateful.

I was always sleepy while at work, and I think this exhaustion was because I felt trapped in a contradiction: the fast pace demanded complete focus on the task, yet that pace also made any real concentration impossible. I had to actively suppress my own ability to think, because the more you think, the more the inadequacies in your understanding of an author’s argument come into focus. This can only slow you down. To not do justice to an author who had poured himself into the subject at hand felt like violence against what was best in myself. The quota demanded, then, not just dumbing down but also a bit of moral re-education, the opposite of the kind that occurs in the heedful absorption of mechanical work. I had to suppress my sense of responsibility to the article itself, and to others — to the author, to begin with, as well as to the hapless users of the database, who might naïvely suppose that my abstract reflected the author’s work.

The problem with such jobs is their abstraction. You have no sense of achievement because it’s impossible to see the task as serving any direct function. Sure, on an intellectual level, you can imagine future researchers reading your abstracts and finding them useful but you never get the feeling of achievement that comes from seeing, at the end of the day, your work embodied in something as immediate as a now functioning motorbike.

In Crawford’s example that abstraction comes, at least in part, from the hierarchy in the company. But most writers endure something similar, if only because the process of publication is so extenuated and mediated that there’s no single moment of creation, no instant when the work moves from in-process to completion. As Crawford suggests, the separation of manual and intellectual labour probably plays an important role — one would imagine that the experience of an author engaged in a William Morris-style project in which he or she took responsibility for the printing and the binding as well as the words would have a quite different experience.

I should also say that the subsequent review of Crawford’s book made his thesis seem much less attractive, since the argument seems to be caught up with a bunch of macho nonsense about motorbikes. Even still, I’m sure there’s something in it, and that the peculiar stresses of writing partly relate to its separation from the physical world.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Great post, Jeff. I do think that writing (and publishing, and office work) separates people from their physical selves in a way that leads to a kind of demoralization. With writing this is exaggerated because you can become so focused on the result (ie. will people like my book/article , read the book/article , short list the book/article) that you lose any sense of the more purposeful sense of creating the work. You twittered about this on the weekend. Being left with a vague sense of satisfaction while the idea itself becomes elusive.

    Certainly collaborative work encourages focus on the process rather than the results. The Omega workshops, run by Roger Fry, in Bloomsbury made a good fist of being truly collaborative. But then you have workshops like Jeff Koons where Koons makes much pretentious and offensive distinction between his art and the worker's craft.

  2. I know Arena had a whole thing along these lines, where they tried to get everyone involved in every aspect of the magazine, from the writing to the actual printing. Would be interesting to know if it made much of a difference.

  3. Do people really think that much about whether or not people like their work. Isn't this rather shackling in the creative process? My God, if I did that, I wouldn't write anything at all. A very wise writer (credit to Joel Deane) once told me that his job was to write the book the way he wanted and to the best of his ability, and that once that was done, his job as a writer ended. Whatever happened next was out of his control…

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