For those who don’t know, the closest thing to a hobby I have is repairing the mountings or fabricating new ones for old Japanese swords. One thing about those swords was that they were hand-forged by different smiths following different schools and traditions, and using a special form of iron created in batches that also varied from year to year. In short, you’d be hard pressed to find two blades exactly alike, even though they both might be made by the same smith. As a result, blade collars (habaki), scabbards (saya), hilts(tsuka), etc, were all custom made to fit the blade they were to be used on. Traditionally, each was created by a specialist (and sub-specialist. The person who created the scabbard was probably not the same person who did the lacquer finish. Different specialty). In practice, I don’t have access to any of those specialists, so anything I need that requires a precise fit I will have to make myself. If I don’t have the skill, I have to acquire it.
For anyone still reading this (whose eyes haven’t glazed over), there’s actually a connection between this wild hare of mine and the writing. In fact, to call it a connection is to understate the case. They’re part of the same thing and there’s really no separating them.
The cliché is to “write what you know.” Phrases get to be clichés for two main reasons. First, they’ve usually true enough to be useful (not to be confused with stereotypes, which is another can of annelids). Second, they’re catchy and easy to remember. On the surface, a sword project fits perfectly into this paradigm. One thing I write about is a man in 11th centuryJapan who has a fairly dangerous profession. Knowing a thing or two about swords in general and the specific type he would use is helpful, and working on these projects helps me understand a lot more about the subject than I ever would from written references. It is not, however, the reason I’m doing this. Stephen King writes about baseball now and then, but I’m fairly sure that’s not the reason he follows the game, any more than Dorothy Sayers became a fan of bell-ringing simply so that she could work it into a Lord Peter Wimsey story. In both cases they did it out of love for the subject and the writing about it arose from that.
So I’ve fallen in love with swords? That’s the simple answer and I am, as I’ve stated before, a serial obsessionist. Yet even that misses the point. We define ourselves as writers, and writers write. That’s what we do and who we are. Narrow focus. The risk is that it becomes all that you are. When writing becomes the point and the purpose and the passion all by itself. When we confuse the process with the journey and make the mistake of thinking that we are complete and self-contained. That’s when writing starts to feed upon itself, becoming both self-referential and self-reverential, like that clichéd snake devouring its own tail. Not good for you. Definitely not good for the writing.
There are at least two contradictory impulses working on any writer once they achieve a certain level of competence. The first is to pull in, play to your strengths and write what’s worked for you before. The second is to expand, to try to become more than you were, to become better, perhaps even something different altogether. The first is safe, comfortable. The second is neither safe nor comfortable, but then neither is it as difficult as some people believe. It’s actually the most natural thing in the world–all you have to do is look for something outside yourself that you care about and go for it. Or as Joseph Campbell famously said “follow your bliss.” What he didn’t tell you is there doesn’t have to be just one. Why limit yourself? There can be several. Take the time. Find them. Follow where they lead. And then see how what enriches you also enriches what you do, and expands what you’re capable of doing. Most of us follow this impulse anyway, but we often feel guilty about it, wrongly thinking that these hobbies/interests are distractions from our writing. They are not distractions. If anything, they’re the freakin’ point.
So maybe next month I’ll decide I want to learn the guitar and go off on that tangent for a while. Right now I’m doing this. I’ve got a tanto (dagger) that needs a new blade collar. So at some point I’ll be making my own habaki. I’ve done armoring before in SCA but this is a bit different. I’ve made one and only one habaki before and it turned out okay, but I want to do better this time. I’ve got my copper bar stock and I’ve already learned to anneal and solder. In both cases I get to use a blowtorch.
How cool is that?