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  • J Scott Lane

One to Watch: Writing in Good Time

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

A derisive comment you don't hear much any more is that "she's a real watchmaker," meaning that the she in question focuses on creating high value where it is not appreciated. I appreciate it, and I would be honored to be called a watchmaker of a writer.

Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in 1974, and he worried a lot in that book about the nature of quality, as well as other philosophical points. I remember reading Zen - painfully - years ago and being a little baffled by its obsession with that word, quality, and why it needed to be elevated to such ethereal heights.

George Daniels, Watchmaker
The late Dr. George Daniels, a legendary watchmaker, perfected a coaxial escapement that one observer called the most important development in watchmaking in 250 years.

Starting at about the same time as Mr. Pirsig's death in 2017, I started becoming interested in watches. First, learning more about them from a branding standpoint. What makes a Rolex so great, anyway, and why are people willing to lay down $10,000 and more to have one? Watches originate from many manufactures today, some of them making thousands of watches each year and others making only two or three amazing machines (current favorite in the latter category: Andreas Strehler). The history of timekeeping and its importance to sailors, bureaucrats, businessmen, scientists, and popes came next. For example, the evolution of a clock, which depends on gravity working on weights to provide consistent power to gears, all the way down to watches, which are flung all over the place over the course of the day making gravity useless as a force to run its gears, is amazing and part of a process that took hundreds of years to work out. How Greenwich mean time was - and still is - kept is a study in and of itself. But what I like the most about watchmaking is the impact that a near-perfect attention to the individual details of hundreds of tiny parts has on the resulting whole.

The connections between horology and writing for me are obvious since innovation, building on past accomplishments, and a near-fanatical desire to attend to the details make the products of either one stand out to the user. Like the "quartz crisis" of the 1970's and 1980's, when a tsunami of battery-powered watches killed off many a mechanical atelier, planning practice is always threatened by the temptation to lean too heavily on reproducible norms. Standards have an important place, but it is the unremitting attention to detail, innovation, and yes, quality, that can make a thing of great aesthetic beauty and functional brilliance. The mechanical (referring to a watch that you wind up or, miraculously, the watch winds itself as you move with it) watchmakers that relied too heavily on the tropes that had worked in the past to mass-produce cheap watches often didn't survive. But the ones like Rolex, Omega, Patek Phillippe, A. Lange & Sohne, and many others did continue and are now seeing a resurgence in their markets. But even if they make runs of thousands or only a few dozen watches each year their focus is on a meticulous attention to materials, performance, and innovation. It was always a part of what they did and they did it not to sell more watches but because they weren't happy doing their job any other way. I can tell when I'm overloaded because I stop working through details, developing innovative approaches (even if they ultimately don't persist to the final draft), and achieving a great fit and finish to my work.

As Pirsig stated in Zen, "The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn't any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it's right. If it disturbs you it's wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.” It's the same thing you feel when you've worked out a better way of doing, analyzing, or articulating any written work. When it's finished, you know it was done to the best standard that you could offer - until the next time.

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