welcome to the forge

If you’re a regular Maven Game reader—have you received your official pin yet?—you’ll know that I don’t hold much truck with writing advice from other writers.

(Why anyone would “hold truck” with anyone else is anyone’s guess—and I wouldn’t hold truck with anyone who guessed!)

No, I prefer cross-pollination. For ideas and inspiration, I turn to other creative fields, from software development to oil painting. So you can imagine my joy when I stumbled on Forged in Fire, History Channel’s bladesmithing competition series. “Hulu’s got 5 seasons of this queued up? Goodbye world!”

The show pits four bladesmiths of varying experience against each other in a test of high-stakes craftsmanship. To start, they’re asked to forge a knife on-set using the provided equipment. They’re given three hours to make the blade; the judges eliminate the weakest contender. Then the three left standing are given another three hours to craft the handle and address any outstanding issues with the blade. (Drafting and revision—see the similarities?)

The judges test the three completed knives for strength and sharpness by hacking at stuff—I guess that’s the developmental editing stage—and one more contestant is eliminated. Finally, the two remaining bladesmiths are sent back to their home forges and given five days to craft a full-scale weapon of war: rapier, Crusader sword, kris, etc. The forger of the finest blade wins $10,000.

Now it’s possible this description alone was enough to send you scrambling for a Hulu subscription and an IV bag to stay hydrated. For the rest of you, I’ve forged some takeaways.

The competitors come in all shapes and sizes: fat, old, white guys predominate, sure, but it’s actually a pretty diverse mix, relative to my expectations about bladesmiths. Not knowing anything about blacksmithing myself, what’s most interesting about the craft is how uncertain it can be.

This is partly by design. Rarely are the smiths given a standard chunk of high-quality, forge-ready steel. There’s a twist: Forge a knife out of these ball bearings. Forge a knife from various bits of metal we found in a junkyard. Forge a knife from giant coils of railway iron. Etc.

Even when given the raw material in a relatively typical form, however, it’s amazing how often people with ten or even twenty years of full-time experience will underheat the metal or quench too soon or commit one of dozens of other common mistakes that soften the blade or sabotage its sharpness. One of the judges is an official master smith and he spots these errors the moment they happen. But I have a feeling that, if he were down there forging, he’d be making them, too.

It’s clear that three hours to forge a knife isn’t much. But even when the smiths are given five days in their home forges to create a larger weapon, the process goes awry with astonishing frequency. Many of these smiths claim to have forged hundreds or even thousands of knives for their customers. And yet perfection is nowhere to be found. For each smith, creation is a messy and unpredictable process.

Clearly, bladesmithing, like writing, is an art as well as a craft. This is a powerful reminder for me. None of us really feel like we write enough. I certainly harbor the sense that if I had another ten years of intensive writing practice and training under my belt, I’d have the whole thing down to muscle memory by now. I’d just open Microsoft Word and churn out excellence.

Nah. You can write and publish thousands of pieces and still botch the next one. That’s OK. That’s art. Your whole sense of self as a writer and a human being does not, despite what your brain always tells you, hinge on the next thing you write. It’ll be a piece, master or otherwise. Quench it, sharpen it, throw another lump of steel in the forge.

Another thing: the home forges range from full-scale manufacturing enterprises down to a big pot over some coals in a backyard. I can see no apparent correlation between the quality and capacity of the forge and the axe or warhammer or Crusader sword that comes out of it. Ingenuity wins out. Another good reminder not to obsess about your working space or your tools. Nor to get hung up on obstacles. The winners just keep solving things, like the guy who jury-rigged his forge with a satellite dish to finish the job. That guy was not going to take no for answer. Neither should you.

It’s natural while watching any such competition to pick winners, then watch to see if your predictions play out. For me, they usually haven’t. Whether it’s traditional Japanese smithing garb or a big 19th-century leather apron or a hipster beard or a trucker cap, the best smiths don’t look like the best smiths. Winning comes down to psychology. And in that arena, some themes emerge.

For example, it’s clear to anyone watching that the most effective strategy to win Forged in Fire is to listen to the instructions, follow the instructions, and make a knife. Beyond the length and the occasional design element like a serrated edge, you’re free to make the simplest knife possible. The judges may appreciate aesthetic touches like an ivory handle or an animal-head hilt, but they don’t take that into account in the ranking.

And yet: something about going on the show renders the “obvious” strategy invisible. Everyone feels obliged not only to win but to show off while they’re at it. Is it because people are watching at home? One supremely confident dude decided right off the bat to make two knives at the same time, just to have “options.” Everyone else is panicking about forging one knife in three hours. He’s worried he’ll have too much extra time on his hands.

“He’s either really good,” I decided, “or terrible.”

An hour in, the guy’s exhausted. So he abandons one blade and still makes a mess of the other one. All the distraction, you know? He’s so flustered, in fact, that he quenches without gloves on, burning both hands. Grimacing, pain and wounded pride written across his face, he assures the judges the burns are no big deal.

(I have a scribbled note from that episode: “Dave: stop trying to forge two knives at once!”)

Examples of this mentality abound. One smith painstakingly hand-stitches a leather wrap for an axe that ends up making it impossible to swing properly. Often, in their eagerness to create some weird knife variant that will wow exactly none of the judges—”They’ll never expect me to craft a Kukri/Kris hybrid!”—they neglect the actual requirements of the challenge, forging a blade five inches too long or one lacking the requisite serration.

I’ll reiterate: they only have one or two requirements to meet. And yet they whiff them more often than you’d believe.

It brings to mind all the slush submissions I used to wade through as an acquiring editor. No matter how clearly you state the requirements on your website, you’re still going to get poetry submissions at your nonfiction book publishing imprint. Swept up in our creative egoism, “instructions” and “rules” fade into the background. We’re too busy admiring our future selves.

Who wins Forged in Fire? Not the big talkers. Not the ones in traditional smithing garb or spouting pithy truims. Usually, it’s the schlubby ones who come in with a bag of tools, a ton of humility, and a willingness to make the next piece without any fuss.