The smell of wood shavings, varnish, dust, and metal.
It’s dark, for some reason; it’s always poorly lit, like it’s a level below the surface. Maybe light falls in through short windows at the top of the walls, the kind that frame a scurry of shoes hopping past.
Cool but not cold, dim but not dark. Rich browns and dark greens and reds. Dirtied white rags. The soft smell of coffee in the air.
This is a workshop to me.
I’m not sure how much of it comes from my grandfather’s garage, tucked under the back of the house, the one in which we use to crack open walnuts in a vice on wall-hugging bench. Some of it, I’m sure, is from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
Wherever it’s from it’s a place for work.
In my mind it’s a place in which it’s common to see a lamp burning away in the middle of the night, or to hear the shuffling of feet and oak before the sun brushes the sleep from her eyes.
Most importantly, it’s a place for one thing. If it’s a place for carving wood, then the only tools to be found will be ones for wood.
There will be no music being written, nor naked canvases dressed, nor heart-breaking prose being written.
Only furniture in its various stages and forms will be found.
What’s your workshop look like?
I often have to struggle to clear mine out. My workshop—my computer, my desk—is often a mess of differing lines of thought.
I have my text editor open, a browser, Twitter and Slack, Todoist, Sublime Text, plus whatever else is lingering after a few weeks of not being used. It’s more than likely that each app that’s open has a dozen of its own line of forgotten children.
My physical desk is just as crowded – a pile of notes next to my monitor, half a dozen books stacked up on one side, another half-dozen leaning against a lamp, bottles of water, one cup ringed by stains, another by pens, a big white letter A, post-it notes and index cards.
Then there’s the digital workshops, the ones in which we spend so much time but vary the meaning of frequently. They’re where we work but also our libraries, our lounge rooms, our cinemas, our cafes, and our looking-at-cat-pictures rooms.
The real work happens in the one, or small handful of applications we need to get the one task we’re focusing on done.
It’s well known that multitasking is a lie, and not one the craftsman can concern herself with. But it’s so easy a trap to fall into.
When we’re working on our deliberate practice—that is, trying to develop a single aspect of our skills, trying to do something we haven’t been able to do or understand—we have to ensure our focus goes undisturbed.
We have to know the one thing we’re trying to achieve. It doesn’t matter if we’re trying to learn something new or testing something old, we must focus on the one most important task that’s in front of us.
My ability to focus went through the roof when I simply closed my browser.
Suddenly writing became easier.
My workshop demanded it of me because the application I use to write was the only thing in it. The white background, the blue and blinking cursor, became the entirety of my workshop.
Knowing what we need to focus on is nice, but knowing what will distract us is nicer.
An honesty with ourselves is paramount if we want to get work done. The resistance in our heads will work hard against us as we develop our craft, and will convince us that we can work with music in the background, that it’s totally fine to listen to a podcast while writing CSS, that there’s nothing to worry about when checking Twitter.
We have to remove the obvious distractions, and then be mindful of the subtle ones.
We have to know what we’re trying to do in each moment, and then whenever we move to something else, ask ourselves if it is truly going to help us refine our skills, to make the work we’re doing easier, or if it’s just an attempt to hide away from unrewarding but necessary tasks.
With the right kind of workshop, filled with the right kind of tools and material, honing a craft becomes easy – if not second nature.
Finding the right kind of workshop means knowing who we are, what really does work for us and what really is a distraction. It’s often anything but an intellectual pursuit – we need to go by our gut feelings and notice when we reach for distraction. It might be a distraction that betters us in someway – a reference website, an inspiring novel, even Twitter or Facebook, but it’s still a distraction.
What is it you need to do to have the same warm feeling that darkly-soft colours, wood shavings, varnish, and coffee provides? What does your workshop look like? What does it smell like? What does it help you do?