Monday, January 26, 2015

The Five-Foot Rule

Have you heard the expression, “The five-foot rule applies?” (If you can’t see it from five feet away, no one else will notice it either.)

When I was four or five years old, Daddy hired a carpenter to finish off the upstairs of our home, to add needed bedrooms. Every day I watched as the man measured, cut, nailed and created walls and ceiling and finished floor. I “helped,” by picking up scraps of wood and putting them in a box, and by staying out of his way (that was no doubt the biggest help). Sometimes the man would nail something together that I had imagined, handing him the scraps and telling him what I wanted. He must have been very patient.

I loved the process, the sound of the saw cutting, the hammer nailing, of the smell of fresh-cut pine, the texture of saw dust. I love those things still. And building things has forever remained a part of my life.

One summer a vacant lot on the corner was cleared and prepared for construction. For the next several months (I was ten or eleven by then), I watched and listened and absorbed what the tradesmen were doing. I wandered through the unfinished frame after the workmen had gone for the day, studying the patterns the two-by-fours made against the sky or on the unfinished floor. Plumbers and electricians did their work, and I learned what those patterns meant, too. And I decided I would be an architect.

When I was about fourteen I started working summers and after school in an architect’s office. I did simple drafting, blueprinting and other jobs. And during that same period, I discovered radio and television and filmmaking, and I abandoned my vision. But not completely.

In the years that followed, writing and shooting, directing and editing and producing films, I realized that the principles I learned from the building trades, and in the short time I spent in a school of architecture, applied to whatever I did. Regardless of the finished product, the disciplined way of thinking demanded of an architect (or an engineer or a carpenter or bricklayer) applied.

Over the years my wife and I have designed a couple of houses, built one from the ground up, supervised the construction of the house we now live in, and renovated more than one. We’ve done carpentry, electrical work and plumbing, even taken classes in masonry and brick laying. Building is part of how I define myself. Working alone more often than not, I’ve constructed storage buildings, sheds, playhouses and a doll house. Last year I built a new woodshed.

And of course, I’ve kept on writing.

Building and writing have much in common. Neither can proceed without a plan, a blueprint if you will. Both must have a purpose well defined, a beginning, a middle and an end, and a set of materials to work with. And just as writing depends on knowing what a reader wants, building or renovating a structure must take into account what the ultimate user wants. The quality of the “build,” be it manuscript or dwelling, will determine the satisfaction of the reader or the occupant.

For me there is great satisfaction and reward in creating an interesting story, and in building a structure that performs as it should. Designing something new and useful, something that works as it should, is creative and satisfying. Whatever frustrations there are (and there are many), the end result can be rewarding. Writing and building both have dark corners that don’t always show themselves until late in the process. A good blueprint can carry a lot of the burden, but inevitably there will be things that delay, that add cost, that change the ending of the story. Creativity is what carries the day.
Here are some rules that apply to almost every project, written or constructed:
First, always begin with a clear end in mind. Your vision may change as you build, but you cannot find direction without a solid target.
Second, define the materials you will use before you begin. They will help determine what is possible as well as practical.
Third, be sure of what comes next before you stop for the day. You can waste a huge amount of time and resources trying to pick up where you left off.
Fourth, if you must make changes, be sure you know how that will affect what comes after. Cliff hangers are great for mysteries, but deadly anywhere else.
Fifth, anticipate failure and learn from it. There is always a work-around. If you think you won’t need one, you haven’t learned from experience.

These rules won’t guarantee success, you understand, but creativity, vision, and the ability to see errors and correct them are as much a part of your tool bag as anything else in it.

And the five foot rule applies.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. A corollary to the five foot rule that I realized when a painting contractor who was (and still is within reason) a perfectionist.... look at the job through squinted eyes, that's the way that most viewers see the product. And.... people will see the background once and then forevermore only see the foreground. As I recall my high school days, I would like to have a penny for each of the times that I heard a fellow student bemoan a class or subject saying they'll never use that information in real life. They may realize one day how much that information is used on almost a daily basis. In carpentry alone algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and physics are regular visitors with some chemistry thrown in for good measure.
    And, finally, my fallback rule is always "Measure twice, cut once". This rule is relevant in all things that we do in life. Moinonymous.