in which I make a public call for the formation of a secret society

At last, I’m fully operational after dowsing my brand-new laptop last week.

According to the Apple Genius, AppleCare only started covering water damage with this very model. If I’d soaked the previous year’s MacBook Pro, it would have been a complete loss. (I could actually feel a few more hairs turn gray at the thought.)

As it was, I paid “only” $300 to replace every internal component, including the screen. You know what that means? I scored at least a thousand dollars in free parts. Take that, Apple! At this rate, they’ll run out of cash somewhere around the heat death of the universe.

The real problem with getting my laptop back is that I no longer have a good excuse to be unproductive.

Last year, we visited the Cooper Hewitt museum on Fifth Avenue. It was my first time. What I remember most of that visit was the array of miniature wooden staircases on the second floor. For fancy gerbils, I wondered? The label indicated that these were literal masterpieces, crafted by artisans as a demonstration of skill. It turns out that there’s a bit more to the story.

As explained over at Atlas Obscura, there is a guild of artisans in France known as the compagnons:

The name “compagnon” translates to “companion,” relating to the brotherhood between members and the shared identity of a movement that, today, encompasses around 12,000 permanent, active members. Professions usually fall into one of five “groups,” depending on their principal material: stone; wood; metal; leather and textiles; and food. Within these groups are bakers, clog-makers, carpenters, masons, glaziers, and many more. In the past century, new trades have been added and old ones have fallen away. But whatever the craft, the journey from apprentice to “compagnon” is long and highly specific, and culminates in the completion of a “masterwork”: an item that showcases the skills acquired over at least five years of sustained study.

Hence, for the woodworkers, tiny staircases. These compagnons hone their skills through hard work and travel:

As young people, they live in boarding houses together in towns across France, where they spend their days learning and training to become the country’s greatest tradespeople. After six months in one place, each tradesman will pack up and move on to another French town, and a new hostel, to learn more skills under a new master.

The Freemasons nod to their artisanal roots with masonry symbolism and aprons. Conversely, the compagnons are actual, working artisans who operate like a secret society:

After going from apprentice to “compagnon,” craftsmen undergo an initiation rite, which…remains “shrouded in secrecy to preserve its magic and effectiveness.” Depending on the trade, this ritual may include additional elements, like a two-day “symbolic journey.” A constant, however, is the adoption of a symbolic name that indicates where they have come from and something about their character: Prudence of Draguignan, Flower of Bagnolet, Liberty of Chateauneuf. The organization’s other particularities beyond the “secret” nickname include the wearing of a colored sash and carrying of a tall, ornamental wooden cane, given to them after initiation. For the rest of their lives, compagnons are part of a close-knit brotherhood, with its own patron saint, feasts, and even funerary traditions.

Clearly, we need an equivalent society for writers. Not a brotherhood, of course, but a…personhood? (The compagnons now admit women, thankfully.) A few years of intense training, migrating between, well, different publication mediums? Then an initiation rite, a symbolic journey, and a new name. (I’m thinking mine would be “the Bagatelle of Brooklyn.”)

I’m joking (sort of). That said, I do wish high-quality, in-person, rigorous, professional writing training were more widely available. The most skilled writers of previous generations have always cut their teeth in newspapers. Cranking out hundreds of obituaries under the eye of a skilled editor gets the craft into your muscles and bones in a way no book or online course could ever do. That isn’t really a viable option anymore. Guest-blogging is no substitute. Careful line-editing and mentoring from a pro, and feedback from readers, are crucial.

“Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years” (UPDATE 2019-04-21: Site seems to be gone.) is about programming—obviously—but, as always, that advice applies equally well to us writing bums.

It’s questionable how far you can get just by book learning. Before my first child was born, I read all the “How To” books and still felt like a clueless novice. Thirty months later, when my second child was due, did I go back to the books for a refresher? No. Instead, I relied on my personal experience, which turned out to be far more useful and reassuring to me than the thousands of pages written by experts.

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