Just because something is totally out of reach does not mean that is it not worth pursuing. Years back, when I was introduced to wooden spoon carving, I was entranced. These beautiful, sculptural objects were not only intended for practical use, but for a most personal use: eating. Any sculpture that should feel good in the mouth is going to be tricky to get just right.
Shaping this complex artifact with the simplest of tools is a task so dependent on hand skill and aesthetic refinement, that it only took a few attempts to convince me of how hard this was going to be. But I am at peace with making objects that fall short of my ideal.
These four spoons are my latest carvings, and it feels like all I see are flaws. I have seen and used many exceptional wooden spoons over the years, and I cannot help seeing how far my work falls beneath those prime examples.
But I’ve taken encouragement from radio host Ira Glass as he famously encouraged aspiring journalists to close the “gap” between their ambitions and current abilities by pushing through a massive quantity of production:
“Nobody tells people who are beginners – and I really wish somebody had told this to me – is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste – the thing that got you into the game – your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. You know what I mean?
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like to say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be – they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.
And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase – you gotta know it’s totally normal.
And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work – do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while – it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?”
I’m still fighting to close my spoon carving gap, but as I’ve struggled, I’ve decided it’s a fight worth pursuing. Keep at it, because there is no way around the huge volume of work between you and success. The good thing is that for most of us woodworkers, the journey is the destination.