Churning, Crashing, Burning

Jad Abumrad talks about the early days of his now-rockin’ radio show Radiolab, speaking of the life-or-death feeling that comes with the creative process: that feeling that even if no one is paying attention to what you are doing (even if no one is reading your blog, for example), it is making or breaking your entire life in that moment. He describes it as the “radical uncertainty that you feel when you try to work without a template,” and recognizes “how crummy it feels to try to make something that’s new.”* Now, it doesn’t feel terrible all the time, but when it does, it’s important to recognize that it means that you are forging ahead. It feels terrible because you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re figuring it out and continuing despite your setbacks.

Perhaps I am deliberately looking for validation that my failures are OK, but I feel like this talk by Abumrad as well as another article on anxiety and creativity found me at just the right time (thanks to Shota Yamaguchi and Dave McClinton). For Kierkegaard, anxiety arises as a product of staring the abyss of possibility in the face. It is an abyss we can fall into and fail to climb out of, or it is an abyss we fall into and swim in. The “dizzying effect of freedom” and “boundlessness of one’s existence”** can be stifling or can be generative. I am reluctant to say that my anxiety is generative, as it feels stifling, but I have completed zero projects without generous doses of it, so it is surely a part of my being able to produce.

I begin with this lesson as I had a good, easy experience followed by a harrowing failure. Here’s what happened:

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With the help of this handy jig, I cut the mortises on the dado pack at 3/8″ thick. I had to turn the jig backwards in order for the boards fit centered over the blades, which required a little tinkering on John Vehko’s (our shop manager) part, and a little extra clamping for safety on my part. Remember when I had the pieces misaligned on my armrest mock-up? It’s OK–I do, and as a result I avoided this mistake this time. The mortise-cutting went smoothly and everything lines up perfectly. Small victory!

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The next step was cutting tenons to the right thickness to hold the joint together and then figuring out how to hold together two pieces meeting end to end at an angle in order to glue them up.

29I planed down the tenons little by little until they squeezed right in to the mortises. Another success. Then I set to making jigs so that clamps would have two parallel planes to register to in order to hold the angled pieces together. I did this by measuring the angles of the pieces I want to join, and then cutting pieces for the jig at the complementary angle to make ninety degrees. The table saw blade tilts, which is very convenient. Once I wrapped my mind around how this needed to work, it went fairly easily.

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Given how logical this whole process is and how according to plan it went, it seems like the glue up should go just as well, right? Wrong. From here on out, things took a dark and twisted turn. Even though I checked and checked and checked again, the mortises weren’t totally square. It truly baffles me as to how this might have happened, but it did.

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They were only a hair off, higher on one side than the other, but this is enough to mean that the joint won’t close up perfectly tightly. I was afraid if I cut them down on the miter saw again, they would still be off, since this is the tool I used to cut them in the first place, and I didn’t want to spend hours upon hours making jigs for the table saw since there are actually four different angles I would have to figure out, and I didn’t trust myself enough with a hand-plane to shave off just the right amount. So, I opted for a sanding block with 150-grit paper and I worked little by little to get the high side down.

36In the end, I somehow only made things worse (the image above with the square is after I put things further out of whack). I eventually had to suck it up and trim the mortises down again on the miter saw. This worked fine–not perfect–but better than it was before, and I just have to live with it. I wish I hadn’t wasted two hours attempting to fix things with a sanding block, but you live and learn, I guess. With everything more-or-less square, I did a test run on gluing the joint up with my new jigs and it went great, so I moved on to the real thing, which went horribly horribly wrong. The tenon was a little tight when it was dry, and once I applied glue inside the mortise, the wood swelled and I could barely get the tenon to go all the way in. I struggled and clamped and unclamped and squeezed and sweat and cursed, and finally, as the glue became less workable, I had to admit defeat and just take it apart. I was able to wipe the glue out. I moved on to a different joint with a looser tenon, which I thought would be better, but this time I wasn’t able to close the joint up all the way and I have no idea why and it was too late before I realized. I now have a small gap in a critical part of the chair that I will have to repair and hope that no one notices (though I suppose the cat is out of the bag!). I don’t have pictures because I was just too mad about it. This is life and death people! The end of the end! OK, so of course it’s not life and death, but it felt like it: the terrible jump into the abyss of possibility and the coming up for air only to find you’re still leagues under water.

I did what any reasonable woodworker would do. I went for some retail therapy and had a margarita.

I’m going back today with a clearer mind and a calmer demeanor, and hopefully this will amount to a full oxygen tank.

*Jad Abumrad, “Why ‘Gut Churn’ is an Essential Part of the Creative Porcess.” 99U. http://99u.com/videos/7278/jad-abumrad-why-gut-churn-is-an-essential-part-of-the-creative-process (accessed March 8, 2014).

**Maria Popova, “Kierkegaard on Anxiety and Creativity.” Brain Pickings. http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/06/19/kierkegaard-on-anxiety-and-creativity/ (accessed March 8, 2014).

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