I’m not sure if this is a blog, a progress report, or an exhortation, but as I went out on the patio Saturday to examine this newly oiled portion of the work in progress, I was suddenly imbued with a desire to share some of this, not the project so much, or even the design of it, but how a middle-aged man who couldn’t nail two boards together eventually found himself doing work like this.
As I near the sunset years I find myself thinking not about what might have been but about what was and how it was accomplished. One of the things that most distresses me is the fear so many people have of doing something new, something different, something challenging, something that they’re not at all certain they can accomplish. Seeing how that mahogany glistened Saturday morning—and knowing how many years it took me to get to this place—I thought I might write a little about fear because it’s a feeling I often experienced in my early woodworking days, and something I frankly continue to battle on the current project.
I came to woodworking late in life, not making my first major project until I was 38, floor to ceiling bookcases that wrapped a bedroom that I converted into a study. I’m really not sure where the courage came from for that first venture into woodworking. Maybe I minimized it to myself a bit. Even though I’d never so much as turned on the Skil Saw I borrowed from my father for the project, to my mind it was not much more than simple shelving which I held up with 2x2s. I drilled some holes in the poles, put ledgers under all of the shelves, drilled holes in the ledgers, and bolted it all together. The project itself consumed my weekends for several months, but what it became was much more than a beautiful place for my books. It was the ultimate confidence-builder for what was to come.
I mention those early bookcases not to brag—trust me they were very modest alongside the project pictured here—but because I think so many of us are in similar straights. We want to do something, but fear of failure paralyzes us. Interestingly enough, we’re so afraid of failure that we fail to notice that only sports fans keep that kind of tally. Most people see only our successes. Before I carved the rosettes on my wife’s vanity, I made a dozen wretched practice carvings. No one has ever asked to see them. I’ve been at this blog all morning now, but I have every confidence that no one who reads it will ask how many false starts there were before I found the rhythm I wanted for it.
The bookcases were followed by a long lull, and I did not again venture into that world until my father died when I was 44. The following spring I made a breakfront bookcase in his memory. A year later I made the double pedestal computer desk I’m sitting at now, which I made with a Skil Saw, electric drill, and drill guide, a project that consumed an entire summer, using a Sunset book on cabinets as my guide. I did not actually take formal lessons in this until I was 49, at which time I enrolled for what became the first of five years of woodworking classes.
There was a time when I thought of myself only as a failed novelist because I’ve written two novels which I was never able to publish, but I eventually came to the conclusion that I ought not to define myself by those little bumps in the road. Writing is a discipline that has helped me in so many ways that to focus only upon the material success of the venture would very much be a mistake. It’s the kind of work that requires a great deal of discipline, patience, fortitude, and perseverance. And because writing is a thinking endeavor, it helped develop the analytical skills that have helped enormously with the current venture I’ve shown here.
This work is incomplete. Worse, two of the elements are upside down with neither their proper footing, nor the crown molding that will eventually adorn them. What you are seeing here is only part of the whole, and I mean to enlighten you no further at the present moment because where this project is going is not nearly so important as the fact that it is going. It’s an ambitious project, and I expect to have my share of problems before it is finished, but I am confident that it will soon be finished and that it will be all the things that I heretofore only hoped it would be. A large part of that optimism can be laid at the feet of previous successes.
That’s the thing with failure. If you once give yourself permission to do so, to go forward without regard to the outcome, you find yourself succeeding from time to time. Even though you accept the possibility of failure, the idea of this is not to try halfheartedly and then sullenly accept the failure made inevitable by such a half-hearted effort, but to “strive valiantly, to come short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but to actually strive to do the deeds,” to borrow from Theodore Roosevelt on this subject. The inevitable result of such effort is triumph, if not in the original endeavor, than in another. Best of all, success breeds success. The more you accomplish, the more you believe you can accomplish.
Back in the early 1970s when I was still getting up at 3:45 a.m. every morning to work on my first novel before going to work at 8:00 a.m. for a full day’s work, I had a poster on my bedroom wall. It was a dramatic black-and-white photo of a person striding forward purposely alongside a lakeshore. Superimposed upon it was this quote from William Shakespeare, “We know what we are, but not what we may be.”
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