Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters

There are times when I think of Fisher, bent over his bag of tools, and wish that he could build more than just objects, that he could take bones and skin and souls and nail and screw them together in different patterns. That he could take the raw materials and build me a new self while I watch.

goldsmithI have been marginally obsessed with the concept of creating ‘somethings’ out of ‘nothings’ for as long as I can remember. The idea of starting with raw materials and exerting force upon them; heating and cooling, shaping and molding, the act of piecing together in unexpected ways to affect transformation. It is almost magic.


Recently a contemporary half-jokingly introduced me to others as a ‘wordsmith’. A day or two later a friend alluded to the pleasure she gets from my “wordmithing’. The word invokes visions of cramped spaces and brow wiping, of quills scratching over uneven parchment. It bespeaks of toil and sweat but underneath it all, skill. Beyond writer or author or novelist or blogger or any other word that describes the act of putting words together in a way that resonates with a reader, I think wordsmith is my favorite, the one I am a little bit in love with.

Wordsmith implies craft. Like a blacksmith or a metalsmith it involves the act of working with the base ingredient–molten steel or silver or language—and crafting it into something else; something different or useful, something shiny or new. Like alchemy there is a desire to turn base into noble, but there are no equations or incantations. No magic. What there is instead, is skill mixed with a touch of necessity. Not simply talent, but something which must be learned and studied, apprenticed and practiced, perfected with experience and time.

I work at my craft. I practice and toil and throw away sheets that have been hammered too thin, molds that are rusty with use. I burn myself and cut myself to get the best shine, to get the smoothest edge. I get frustrated when the material doesn’t respond in the way I want it to, when language doesn’t bend to my will or my tools, when a rough splinter catches on a sharp tongue. I go through the scarp heap to see what can be salvaged, what can be recycled. I fine tune and sand and polish. And then I sand and polish again. And again. I look for flaws and cracks, weak points where the work won’t hold. I could slap and dash, but there is no craft in that,no smith, only words.

blacksmith tools

Sometimes I shine and buff so much the finished product is rubbed too thin and does not hold up. And then—and then there are times when the material is pliant, warmed to my touch and ready to be molded. Those are the times when it is important to take a moment to enjoy the curve of a silvery sentence or the sharp point of a nail driven home.

Stories are the way we connect with one another as human beings. Tales and myths are how we understand, how we make sense of the world. I believe that each of us have stories to share and experiences to enliven the hive, but to imply that writing is something that anyone can do well takes away from the skill of it. To insinuate that simply putting pen to paper again and again will make you proficient takes away from the craft of it.

The idea of taking something and twisting it into something unexpected—this is my skill, this is my talent, this is my craft. My strengths are not as storyteller. My smith work involves taking the known and working it until it is seen in a different way. Sometimes it is fine tuning an idea or turning it around in my head until it can be viewed from a different angle. Many times it is simply crafting the language itself, the arrangement words on a page; sworn enemy adjectives that become sudden lovers, contradictory adverbs that glue themselves together in still wet ink.

letterpress lettersI take the raw words I have access to and work them. I heat them and bend them, hammer at them and pound them. Just as there are some that have a natural feel for a piece of metal under their hands, or those that can see a home where others see a pile of timber and sawdust, I can feel the weight of a sentence in words. You need to build up your strength to pound liquid steel into shape or to forge iron. You need to train your eye to see the faults in gold, the flaws in a sheet of copper or silver. Working with language is no different. Yet over time your movements become more like breathing and less like work. They become fluid. The feel of those base ingredients in your hand becomes familiar and comforting. It becomes second nature. It becomes home.

Practicing the craft is important to me. It fits in with my idea of doing an honest day’s work. I get great satisfaction from forging and transforming, from drafting and redrafting, from blank, white page to finished product. Sometimes I envy those that work with more tangible materials, particularly carpenters and wood workers, those who can take a piece of nature and turn it into something solid and beautiful; a piece of furniture which will withstand time, a structure to shelter treasures, a home in which to live. I do not possess the skill to raise a physical structure that can shelter my dreams. I hope that with continued patience and practiced skill, I will raise high the roof beams all the same.


The above excerpt is from an untitled story of mine from 1996




13 thoughts on “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters

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    1. Exactly. I once talked about using your own blood as ink in order to produce evocative writing. I don’t think people realize that. There seems to be this idea that you can just sit down and do it. I would never suppose that I could sit down and write a piece of music or paint a worthy painting. I think that collective ownership of language makes it more of an accessible notion. But then I think that takes away from those that do it well.


  1. Oh, God! The process of perfecting words, smooth as pearls and glinting like like burnished metal, was cathartic! Certainly a wordsmith after my own heart. Thank you for the gorgeous writing.


    1. I hide the bruised thumbs. You know, I thought of you when I titled this. Franny and Zooey is one of your favorites, isn’t it? Couldn’t swing that, but this title is so gorgeous I had to twist the whole post around so that I could use it. And….I didn’t realize it was from a Sappho poem. Ignorance, but now corrected!


  2. These are just two of my favorite wordsmith-worthy moments:

    “skill mixed with a touch of necessity”

    “stories to share and experiences to enliven the hive”

    Thank you for reminding me of the sense of dignity and true calling that drives this ever-frustrating and solitary pursuit we writers feel compelled to commit our lives to.

    Liked by 1 person

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