Whittling Life

Whittling is a subtractive process, meaning you start with a block of wood and remove some bits until you arrive at the shape you want. Whereas carpentry is additive: you keep adding boards until you arrive at the final structure. Carpentry also has a jigsaw-puzzle aspect, where pieces have to fit together just-right. I never bothered to contemplate the difference before, but the other day I noticed that I’m a particular type of woodworker.

I had split a block of wood into tiny planks with the idea that I’d assemble them into a small box — a carpentry project. But I sat there staring at the boards, deciding on how to assemble them. Carpentry is about precise cuts with saws and lots of sawdust — and that’s just not my style. I’m a knife guy — I like cutting into wood and having curls drop off. For instance, I already have a small box made from a block of wood that I simply hollowed-out with a knife and chisel.

So instead of piecing those tiny planks together, I’ve been using them as starting-points for carved pendants. It turns out that I’m into subtractive art, not additive — I wasn’t quite aware of the distinction before. And it’s true: when faced with a blank canvas, I don’t know where to begin — my mind is equally blank. But when presented with a work-in-progress, I can certainly tell you what doesn’t belong. It’s basically a form of criticism: “Nope, that doesn’t look right! Remove it!”. You just keep pecking away until there’s nothing left to criticize.

And this serves as a metaphor for life. If presented with the idea that life is a blank-canvas, I’m frozen with indecision. I don’t know how to proceed — I need something to evaluate and judge. BUT, this criticism needs to be applied with the intent of creating a work-of-art. I had been criticizing and stopping there — I wasn’t actually cutting anything out. Therefore I always see the same bits that don’t belong, every single day.

So instead of looking for what I should add into my life, I should be evaluating what I already have, then actively removing the bits that don’t belong i.e. whittling my life into a work of art. I had been trying an additive approach, which simply didn’t suit me AND I had neglected to remove the bits that didn’t fit. For example, my tendency for general-negativity is something that needs to be sliced away — and my knife in this context is mental-discipline.