“I will bite: please share something you learned from the Japanese sword book.”
I think one of the best books of writing that I ever read was Smiley’s People, the spy novel by John le Carré. It’s a book about a team of people doing a metric ton of research. Then the book reaches its climax when they turn all the research over to the titular character, George Smiley, so that he can write a letter.
That’s essentially the whole action of the novel. It’s about making the best preparation to write something in the right way.
Writing things right is important. Words have power. I need to be careful and wary with them, which makes it essential to prepare as well as I can.
This is a thing we like to do, we writers. We like to share titles of books about writing, and we like to read them. It’s all well and good to do so. Learning from other writers only makes sense.
The subject of a writer’s scrutiny, though, is life, which includes all of it. To me what that means is that, while there are many valuable books about writing to be had for a few coins at any good bookseller, those titles do not represent the wholeness the world’s books of writing.
I don’t think that the only good writing lessons are in books about writing. I don’t think that the only important writing lessons are, in point of fact, about writing at all.
One of my favorite books where I learned lessons that I apply to writing every day is called The Craft of the Japanese Sword by Leon Kapp and Hiroko Kapp, in collaboration with the Japanese swordsmith Yoshindo Yoshihara.
In the book, I learned the importance of mastering my materials.
In brief, the book tells the story of a sword, on its journey from a lump of carefully selected iron, and through many stages of heat and manipulation till it becomes something else entirely.
The book demonstrates the value of dedication to quality and the necessity of collaboration in some projects. It takes a week and four or five guys to make a proper katana, but the nature of it means that it’s still the masterwork of the chief smith. One dude is the expert in metallurgy. One dude knows most about fire. One dude is only responsible for sharpening the thing. But there’s one swordsmith who’s still the chief craftsman, and when the thing is done it’s got his name on it, even if it’s covered in the fingerprints of a whole team—metaphorically since they are careful not to leave fingerprints.
Making a Japanese sword demands precision and a certain preeminent degree of expertise. It takes years to learn how to even heat the metal properly, before anything else even begins. Do it wrong, and the blade has the wrong distribution of carbon and it’s too brittle, or too soft. That’s before you even really get started.
It’s an extremely complicated way, in short, of accomplishing something ostensibly frivolous that could, for most consumers, be just as acceptably done cheaper and with less trouble by someone less skilled or something more heartless. I mean, nobody needs a sword, so if you want one for decorative purposes then there are easier, cheaper ways to get it. Get one that’s factory-made—easy enough—or from someone who can bang one out in a day or two. Much more practical than waiting around to get one from a swordsmith who takes a week and five guys to make one sword.
Yoshindo Yoshihara is there anyway, making swords. Some people are appreciating him for it, which is only half the inspiration.
The other half of the inspiration is that he has spent his life mastering his materials. He takes iron and carbon, applies his expertise, and after an incredibly complex process makes something beautiful.
Not all lessons about writing are in books about writing. I believe in the value of looking outside of my discipline for valuable ideas.
For further reading…
- Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, for an example of what one person can do when they really set their mind to it. Also, a lot of good story ideas in here.
- Going Postal by Terry Pratchett, for an inquiry into the power of ideas.
- Not Your Usual Founding Father: Selected Readings from Benjamin Franklin by (more or less) Benjamin Franklin, for some good examples of what really excellent writing, even on the subject of nothing in particular, looks like.
- Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes by Jacques Ellul, for an examination of fiction in action.
- Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford, for an inquiry into the value of work.
- A Warlock in Spite of Himself by Christopher Stasheff, for an example of coping with the experience of being the only person who’s really in on the joke.
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