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the lonely apprenticeship
Matt Spillum

Conjure for yourself your image of the classic crafting apprentice. No, not some bright-eyed schemer from Trump’s show, rather the tunic-garbed toiler gleaning the wisdom of the smith, the farrier, the carpenter or the tanner. Got one? Good. All truths about child labor and indentured servitude aside, the plucky would-be craftsperson spent years training under an artisan. By the end of the apprenticeship period, they could expect to know their craft enough to make a living. They would have ready access to the tricks of the trade, working directly with the master crafter.

Now consider the writer. With notepad or computer or typewriter, we cobble the raw materials of language into unique and hopefully enthralling pieces of writing. In many ways, we writers learn our craft alone, or with the help of our peers. There exist few enough of us that learn at the feet of one master. And we are lucky in that sense. We have, at relatively ready access, the works of countless masters (and their less-gifted fellows) available for study. It remains only for us to read them. It is the lonely apprenticeship of the writer.

Of course merely reading will not suffice to make masters out of novices. Much as the hopeful smith must learn the alchemy of iron, heat and hammer, the hopeful writer must learn how plot and character are built, how timing and flow are structured. And it is here that the lonely apprentice learns from the masters. Sitting as I am surrounded by books, I reach for one and bring it to me. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The opening sentence is an excellent one, even through the lens of Gregory Rabatta’s translation: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Just a cursory reading gives us these facts: Colonel Aureliano Buendia is going to die by firing squad (following a military career long enough to reach the rank of colonel), the death takes place many years later than the events we will be reading about, and he grew up in a place and time where discovering ice would be a memorable event. He sets this table in a sentence that puts the reader in a wistful frame of mind at a time that the character could easily be focusing on his impending death. Without directly stating it, Marquez has given us to understand that the Colonel is at peace with his fate.

Learning how to make a sword from an iron ingot involves, I imagine, a great deal of patience, attention to detail and practice. Serendipitously, the odd mistake can always be melted down. Likewise, we writers cobble our pieces from a pile of words which we have the luxury of changing. Being productive in either example, however, means learning from our teachers and our mistakes. As in nearly any endeavor, the more preparation a person goes into a task with, the better the results. In any description of the art of writing I have ever read, the message is the same; to write well, you have to do the work. It isn’t a matter of talent; it’s a matter of working hard.

In order to do that work, we need to take the time to learn our craft. Lonely as it may be, we have our vast trove of masters to choose from as we develop our craft within ourselves. And, we have the added bonus of not spending years in menial servitude to pay for our master’s wisdom.

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