My father was, among other things during his working life, a “finish carpenter,” meaning he did finishing work–interiors, mouldings, trim, all requiring precise measurement and a knowledge of how to work with walls that were not plumb or level and still make the end product look right. I was always impressed by his ability to look at a gap or hole or bolt and tell what size it was down to a 1/16 of an inch. He’d eye the head on a bolt and say, “Three-eighths.” I helped him for years and never knew him to be wrong. He could level a piece, put the level on it and say, “Throw the level away–we don’t need it.” He was that good.
In recent years, when he has been unable to do the carpentry work he excelled at, I asked him how he developed such a keen eye for measurement. Typically modest, he shrugged and said, “I don’t know. Just by doing it, I guess.”
I recently have come to understand how it was done as I am nearing the end of my fence project (ran out of pickets today and have to wait a week for more to come) in which I have been converting our old security fence to a picket fence. (I will post an illustrated guide to doing this next week in case you’d like to know how it’s done). I am not terribly skilled at this sort of thing. I have been working on it in fits and starts since last October, but I have about three more hours’ work and it’ll be done except for the gates, which I deferred until I better knew what I was doing. I have redone some sections four times to get them right. There are so many complexities to erecting a fence, much less a scalloped picket fence. And recently I am finding myself with some of my father’s sense of measurement.
I mark off the distance between the pickets on the top stringer (horizontal piece that goes between the fence posts to which the pickets are attached). On the last section, which I marked today, I found the pickets did not come out evenly when I used a 1 3/4 inch spacing. To make them fit, I had to gain 2 and 1/2 inches over an eight-foot section of fence. Using higher math, I calculated that the pickets needed to be 1 7/8 inches apart. I started out using my rule to add an eighth of an inch to each width. After about three changes, I thought, I can look at it and mark an eighth of an inch. And I did. Then it occurred to me I was doing, in a small way, what my dad was able to do. Working with the fence had given me the practice to know how to “eyeball” a small measurement.
And so it is with writing. The experience we as writers gain when we read other writers or as we write enables us to have a sense of what is right for what we’re writing. We might prune a descriptive section that is bogging down a story, or we might add some exposition to move the story along. We might not be able to think of the word we want and put a pale substitute so we can keep writing and come back later with the right word. And, just as my fence should, with any luck, be a work of beauty, so can our writings be beautiful, true and excellent. That is my wish for myself, and for all my colleague writers. And that’s how it’s done.