Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Creating a Masterpiece (an Indie Life post)

What do you think of when you hear the word "masterpiece"? And I don't mean Masterpiece Theater, either. Do you think of this?
Or this?
Or, maybe, even this?
Or something like this?
Joyeuse, the sword of Charlemagne
While it's true that we think of great works of art or craftsmanship as masterpieces, it wasn't always so. Far from it, actually. For hundreds of years, right up until modern times, the word masterpiece was actually applied to what was probably going to be the least accomplished work of one's professional career.
Wait. What?

Okay, let me explain.

There used to be this thing in Europe called a guild system. I'm not sure if they called it that, but it's what we call it. If you were a craftsman or artisan of any kind, you belonged to a guild. So there were guilds for woodworkers, stone cutters, goldsmiths, cooks, painters, sculptors... nearly anything you could think of. And, while it may seem that these just covered, basically, practical professions, they also covered the arts (and many of the most famous pieces of art in history came out of guild work, especially stuff done in cathedrals and other important buildings). [I also want to point out that the guilds also, to some extent, covered writing, especially scholarly writing.] If you wanted to be in one of these careers, you would get apprenticed to someone within the guild to learn the trade. Usually, this was just arranged between the families involved (because often the apprentice went off to live with the person he was apprenticed to), but, (I think) sometimes, these arrangements could be assigned by the guild.

So the apprentice would spend years working with his master to learn his trade, whatever that trade was. At the point that the apprentice had (1) learned everything from his master that he could or (2) learned everything that his master was willing to teach him, he would either become a journeyman (someone who "traveled" (because actual travelling wasn't always involved)) while he worked on his craft and attempted to learn new skills through practice or from finding others to learn from or, if his master had taught him enough, attempt to become a "master craftsman" himself. This was kind of like a test. Okay, no, it was a test. A skills test. The craftsman would have to produce an item to show that he had mastered his craft. If the item was judged worthy, it was called his "masterpiece."

And, as an aside, many (most? all?) of the guilds kept the items that "students" presented and had halls to display great "masterpiece" items. As an additional aside, some of these guilds grew into actual universities. Two prime examples are the Universities of Paris and Oxford.

So... it is true that an artisan tried to do his absolute best work on his masterpiece; it is also true that the production of a masterpiece marked the beginning of a master craftsman's career, not the culmination of it. It was expected that a "master" would go on to create even better works of... art. Because a master was expected to create things of beauty. Even if it was just chairs. Or stone pillars. Or swords. Or, even, writing, to a certain extent.

So here I am to present to you The House on the Corner as my "masterpiece." Not my best work, but the work that proves that I can do the work. I intend that everything will just get better from here on out, and I think that I've already done better. "Christmas on the Corner," for instance, is better. Brother's Keeper will be even better. That's how it goes. Or how it should go.

Now, you get out there and make your "masterpiece"! Whatever that is. Create that masterpiece and declare, "It only gets better from here!"

This post has been brought to you in part by Indie Life.


  1. If the masterpiece is the first one, then that removes a lot of pressure. Mine's out there in the world, and while there are things I would definitely change in CassaStar (can't give specifics as I've never gone back to read it once it was published and probably never will) I know that I have improved since then. It was a starting point and one I'm still proud of.

  2. That's how I see it too. For us personally, each work is our masterpiece while we're working it. Then the next work becomes the masterpiece, each time getting better and craftier. The point is to treat each work like a masterpiece so we give it our heart and soul.

  3. Well then, I guess I'm working on my masterpiece now. Hmm, I like the sound of that!

    I was lucky enough to visit the Louvre when my hubby was stationed overseas. Amazing works are presented there.

  4. By that definition I guess I wrote my "masterpiece" like 20 years ago, lol.

  5. Alex: Everyone has to have a starting point; the alternative is not starting.

    Pk: Yeah, each work of art needs to incorporate some new bit that we've learned since the last piece.

    Elsie: Exactly.

    GP: Hmm... I'll have to go back and look at your graph again.

  6. I'm working on it. It will be a crowning achievement of stupendous genius and…nah. Just writing the book my heart wants to tell right now. :)

  7. That is interesting. I did not know that, which, for me at least, feels like a slap in the face.

    So who gets to declare a work as a masterpiece? But this almost seems like an endorsement for traditional publishing.

  8. I had no idea this is what constituted a masterpiece. Can I print out this post so I can call my own story a "masterpiece" without looking like a pretentious jerk?

  9. I didn't know that about Oxford and the University of Paris. That's an amazing legacy. "Masterpieces" seem a lot like graduate theses. Except probably less soul-crushing.

  10. That was an interesting read Andrew. I didn't know that. I should have because I have read a lot about such apprenticeships and their transitions to Journeymen and Masters, but it never clicked that their contribution to be counted a master was the origin of the word masterpiece.

    By the way, I do NOT like the Mona Lisa. Up close it's even worse and I saw it before they put it behind glass etc. Also, it's so small.

  11. L.G.: So does that mean it's going to have a lot about blood in it?

    Rusty: Oh, no. No endorsement for traditional publishing at all. There has to be at least some level of objective distance involved, which traditional publishing does not have. The guilds looked at the quality of the piece, not whether it was going to make any money.

    Michael: I thought so.

    ABftS: You may certainly print it out :)

    Jeanne: They actually are where those came from as far as I could tell. For some professions/arts, a written paper was required.

    Jo: I'm not much for the Mona Lisa, either, actually. I mean, it's okay, but I much prefer Van Gogh.

  12. OSC's Alvin Maker series kind of centered around Alvin's master piece, how he was able to make it, and what he planned to do with it. It's great reading if you haven't read them already. :)

  13. Interesting. So, this begs the question: when did the switch happen? When did masterpiece take on its modern definition? I might need to spend some time with the OED today...

  14. That's really interesting! It makes a lot more sense, really, and it's a nice way to think about it. :-D

  15. RG: No, I haven't read them. I'm not sure I'll ever get around to reading anymore Card than I already have.

    TAS: If I'm remembering correctly, the first use of it (in literature) in a way that is more along the lines of how we use it was around 1650, but it was in the 1800s when the change in uses really began, and it was as we use it now by the 1900s. -If- I'm remembering correctly.

    Misha: It is a nice way to think about it.

  16. This is a great history lesson and life lesson. It takes years to "master" a skill or craft, but the great ones take a skill and make it their own.

  17. First this was just greatly informative, especially for someone like me, who plays video games that sling these terms around but I've never known for sure what they meant - such as Journeyman.
    Then, in a single sentence, the post became the greatest sales pitch ever. I even bought your masterpiece, knowing "Christmas on the Corner" is better! How could I not?
    Well done.
    Now I'm heading to Indie Life to see what that's all about.

  18. Maurice: That's true. And it's good to remember things and how things started and where they came from.

    David: Oh, wow! Well, thank you! I didn't think about this post that way, but, hmmm..., maybe I will have to. I can't wait to see your review! (Yes, that's a bit more than a hint.)

  19. I think the origin of masterpiece is fascinating! In a way, it resembles a master's or doctoral thesis. Knowing experts will be judging must make some apprentices try extra heard. And I think some "masters" might get a bit lazy further on in their careers when they know they'll make money on their name alone.

  20. Lexa: Well, that, and many of them just took on apprentices to do a lot of the work. Like Michelangelo didn't paint that ceiling by himself.