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Acts of Creation: America's Finest Hand Craftsmen at Work Paperback – April 11, 2014
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About the Author
Walt Harrington, a former long-time staff writer for the Washington Post Magazine, is the author or editor of eight books and the winner of numerous print and broadcast journalism awards, including the Gustavus Myers Center Award for the Study of Human Rights in the United States for his book Crossings: A White Man’s Journey Into Black America. His book, The Everlasting Stream: A True Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and Family, was made into an Emmy Award-winning documentary broadcast by PBS. His book, Intimate Journalism: The Art and Craft of Reporting Everyday Life, has been widely used in journalism writing classes nationwide. He is a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. An archive of student work published from his feature writing classes is at www.intimatejournalism.com. His professional website is at www.waltharrington.com.
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“Acts of Creation” is rich in both realms. I’ve read this book twice and have been riveted both by the inspirational subjects and Harrington’s detailed writing that catches these craftspeople in action while capturing their innermost thoughts on what it takes to be great. Some of these artists make good money and some of them scrape by a bit, but that’s not what’s important. What matters more is the way these 14 individuals approach their work so intensely and passionately—no different than Harrington, who is a craftsman himself. It’s a beautiful thing to discover.
Originally published in This Old House Magazine, these articles cover a wide array of deep-thinking, educated artists: a furniture maker, a blacksmith, a lock expert, a guy who upgrades watermills, an artist who works with copper, a woman who hand crafts plaster and several more super-talented individuals. Harrington’s writing about the particulars is so detailed at times that non-handyman folks like me may have to reread passages to fully comprehend what’s happening, but it’s worth it to unearth how these people do what they do.
Harrington believes there is more than one way to write a literary feature piece, and he proves that by varying how these stories are told. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I was amazed how well-known woodworker Sam Maloof was forced to begin his life anew at an advanced age. The section about the house-framing teacher Robert Reade reminded me a little of Harrington’s method and outlook on teaching aspiring writers. Toward the end of the book we meet the dedicated sculptor Manuel Palos, who once crafted a fireplace for actor Nicholas Cage. And the toast at a party in the last story, given by clay sculptor Peter King, perfectly sums up the idea Harrington tries to convey throughout: Striving for excellence through work that matters is what matters most for these people. By extension, we can all strive for that.
Forget those by-the-numbers self-help books on what it takes to attain and sustain a meaningful, productive career. “Acts of Creation” demonstrates repeatedly, in a very personal way, that finding out what we’re talented at and loving what we do in life are the things that make life worth living.
Harrington's years in journalism as a feature writer for the Washington Post, author of multiple renowned books, and professor of journalism at the University of Illinois have honed his writing skills to a class of workmanship equivalent to the excellence of the craftsmen he interviews for this book. This latest book is an examination of the American ideal of excellence embodied in the lives of craftsmen whose work is more than work and whose creativity transcends the menial norm.
In an elegant and insightful Prologue, "The Craftsman's Way," Harrison summarizes the features his subjects hold in common; for them the work is "like a drug" and the feeling surpasses financial issues. They say that tools and skills don't make a craftsman; that attitude is the critical factor. The work is larger than life, and the process is more important than the product. Perfection is unattainable but its pursuit, "envisioning it, aiming for it...is the thrill." They are intelligent; thought is inherent in their processes. "They work for themselves," and "they are decent people."
As Harrington writes he shows himself to be a craftsman equal in sensitivity to the subjects.