You can never get good enough at welding. There’s always something you can’t weld, just beyond your ability, patience, or faith in yourself.
I didn’t take metal shop in high school, but that’s where most people have their first try at welding. You stand there in a classroom with your aquamarine welding coat and you big oven mitt gloves, you’ve got your welding hood down and a stinger with an electrode in your hand and you have no idea what the hell to do.
You’re reaching out in the literal darkness trying to connect with a hunk of metal, your goal is just to make sparks, to make fire, to make an electric arc. To make two pieces of metal stick together.
Your other goal is to not get burnt.
The more you weld, the easier it gets and you can take it as far as you want. The more you make art, the easier it gets.
I didn’t believe it at first, but people actually care about being great welders. I would have never imagined as a kid that I’d care if I could weld chromium or inconel or other forms of rare stainless steel. I still don’t care.
As a kid, I just wanted to draw with colored pencils at the living room table. I just wanted to write stories in my notebook. I’m still doing that.
I’ve never taken a writing class outside of high school. There’s no great big glory in ignorance but there is some joy that can be had by keeping something ‘play’ and not studying it, trying to dissect it and nail it down to the floor.
I’ve looked through my fair share of charts to master the devices of the industrial wasteland construction industry and believe me, I have no great hunger to search out the charts of the writing word.
Joseph Campbell says every story is reduced down to ‘The Hero’s Journey’? Cool story, Joseph Cambell, I’m not interested in that.
I didn’t have metal shop or auto shop in high school, either. It’s strange what becomes our job, our career. I was forced to take wood shop and I made a clock. I think I threw the clock in the garbage as soon as the class was over.
What I liked to do most when I was younger, was read and write. So when I was in eighth grade and a teacher gave me an award for ‘Enthusiastic Reader and Writer’ I thought that was a cool thing.
I got to go to the State Capitol and miss a day of school to get the award. But when I got there, I learned that the award was given out to kids from third grade to eighth grade.
So there was Ronald McDonald giving me my certificate. There was Grimace and Birdy hugging me. There was the Hamburgler giving me a high five while the photographer snapped photos.
That’s a quick way to learn humility. And maybe learning humility is the most important thing.
You learn to be humble when you weld by getting all scarred up. Everyone learning to weld gets burnt. Scars on your arms and hands and neck. A hole in your foot from where ‘a hot one’ fell into your boot and you couldn’t get it out.
You learn humility in writing whenever you send out a submission. Sending out work and getting it bounced back to you with a no keeps you honest. Keeps you humble. I feel like a humble sack of potatoes every day. Rock on.
My father taught me to weld in the municipal garage. He has a bay there where he fixes cop cars and puts plows on township vehicles in the winter.
We went to the garage on a Sunday when no one was around and he showed me how to set the welding machine amperage for the type of welding wire we were using. He explained what the ground clamp did.
He explained how to hold the stinger, ‘Like a baby bird, not too hard not too soft. Don’t crush it. But also don’t let it fly away.”
Then he said, “You’ll probably be a great welder because you are such a good artist.”
You don’t find out if you’re any good at anything until you do it for an estimated 10,000 hours. I haven’t welded anywhere near 10,000 hours and I haven’t drawn for 10,000 hours.
I’ve written for close to that though. And I’m finally starting to feel comfortable with it.
I do believe that practice makes the artist, makes the writer, makes the musician.
So if writing is welding, is creating.
Then using an oxy-acetylene torch is editing. You get really good at cutting things away. At shaving with fire.
Someone told me once, that it’s better to learn how to weld before you learn how to use a torch, because if you mess your cuts all up, then you can weld it back together and try to make the cut again.
Arc gouging is like editing with a light saber.
“Air carbon arc gouging works as follows. An electric arc is generated between the tip of a carbon electrode and the workpiece. The metal becomes molten and a high velocity air jet streams down the electrode to blow it away, thus leaving a clean groove.”
Throughout my life, I’ve tried to take advice from people who have more experience than me. It’s been out of respect at first, and then out of a form of disrespect too.
Sometimes listening to someone else can be beneficial, sometimes it’s a waste of time. But I’ve found I learn just as much from watching someone and seeing ‘what not to do’, as I have from watching ‘what to do’.
One time I was arc gouging in a power plant. And throwing waves of sparks all around.
Someone walked by and saw that my hooded sweatshirt was sitting to the left of me (I was shooting the Sparks to the right), so they moved my sweatshirt out of what they thought was harms way so it wouldn’t burn up.
When I lifted my welding hood, I saw what looked like a giant torch ablaze in my periferal vision.
When I turned to look, I realized it was my hooded sweatshirt that some one had kindly moved for me so it wouldn’t catch on fire.
Before I was certified to weld, I was on a job at a power plant where they didn’t care if you practiced on your own time so you could take a welding test. One night shift, I was welding on my lunch break and past my lunch break a little bit, when someone came back to work at 1am straight from the bar.
The guy was like, “Kid you want to learn how to weld? I’ll show you how to weld, I’ve been doing this a long fucking time. Watch this.”
He took the stinger from me and said, “I don’t even need a welding shield.”
He struck off on a piece of metal and blinded himself with the light.
The next night he wasn’t at work because he’d given himself arc flash. Basically, severe sunburn on his eyes that felt like sand was thrown in there.
You don’t need permission to write. You don’t need permission to make music. You don’t need permission to make any kind of art at all.
Where I work, you have to pull a permit to do anything.
The reason you have to pull a permit to do anything where I work is because things explode.
When was the last time you wrote a piece of writing that wasn’t any good and your house exploded?
Craft comes in time, on its own, by the continued act of doing the work.
At first, the job seems impossible. With welding, a person is literally in the dark, behind a welding shield blocking out all the light, and has to strike off a welding rod in an electric arc in order to bond two pieces of separate metal together. What an immense struggle it is to get used to welding, especially out of position, welding overhead or vertical seams while crunched into a tight spot.
Feeling around in the dark. Guesstimating.
At first, you get burnt. But over time, doing it day in and day out, a person gets used to being uncomfortable, and learns how not to get brunt.
That is the truest thing I can say about welding and writing. They are similar in that regard. You become better at both welding and writing, by getting used to be being uncomfortable.
Nothing comes easy.
By putting in the volume of work, the true volume of work, you’ll learn your “craft”. A muscle memory develops for your half-broken hands. A vision comes from your unique mind, that nobody else on this Earth can do exactly how you could do it.
As you get better at welding your scars fade away and you forget that there was a time when you ever struggled, when you were frustrated, when you wanted to quit, when it wasn’t natural to feel around in the dark and try to create something pure out of nothing at all.
*All images by Rae Buleri
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