Part I

At this point in my life I was still used to always getting what I wanted. Although “getting” is not the right word. Perhaps “acquiring”? The way I went about things was to identify what I needed to learn, buy, understand, practice, then do it. More often than not I discovered that I got bored five minutes after paying for the expensive course, or buying that electric guitar. But I kept trying new things, often failing at them, despite having been burned (hoho) before. I was still young enough to believe I had no limitations, physical or mental, that could stop me. And I felt strangely secure in my knowledge that I wouldn’t be giving up or getting bored with forging.

I looked at available options. There weren’t many. The last Dutch blacksmithing school shut down twenty years later, replaced by a restaurant. There was a short course in the Netherlands, group classes stretched over two weekends. It cost approx. 1.5 kidneys – if I got a good price on eBay. A course in Poland, where I was born, was available to join every year. In July. It was December. I did not feel like waiting seven months, but I also couldn’t afford to – I would run out of money before then. So I did the only sensible thing – found out who the head of Polish Blacksmithing Guild was, called him, and convinced him over the phone that he should give me a private course. He named what he imagined was very high price. He had no clue what the prices in the Netherlands were. I accepted, and never regretted.

My private course lasted eight days, with a weekend inbetween. I mostly worked with his apprentice, who was a very cool bloke, and had enough time and patience to explain things to me – I was one of his assigned jobs. It couldn’t have been better. I was allowed to continue working when the forge was already officially closed. Nothing could stop me, including the weather. Before travelling I looked at the forecasts, and Accuweather (it’s never been particularly Accu, to be honest) told me to expect a low of -6 Celsius (21 Fahrenheit). The temperature duly dropped to -6, then continued until reaching -24 Celsius (-11 Fahrenheit). I worked wrapped in literally all clothes I brought… okay, not literally, as I couldn’t quite bring myself to put on all underwear I brought. Thermal longjohns, winter boots, sweater, multiple t-shirts, thick gloves, jacket, winter hat, scarf… I found that after a few hours of work I felt warm enough to take off the hat and scarf, and if I really put all my energy into it I sometimes managed without the jacket, too!

An illustration for a clichè that makes me grind my teeth: “gleaming horseshoe”. Horseshoes gleam in two situations. 1) When they’ve been used long enough (by a horse) for sand and rocks to “polish” the horseshoe. 2) When you used a grinder or a metal brush to polish them all purdy, then painted with special oil or lacquer to ensure no oxygen and humidity could reach the metal, as it would then rust. On this picture, I am painting the horseshoe with matte black paint.

Forges are, generally, not heated. Instead, they are very well ventilated. The fire requires lots of oxygen, but also produces toxic gases, not all of which are kind enough to escape through the air vent. As much as I love the smell of very hot iron, the forging process itself produces toxic fumes as well. Therefore no matter how low the temperature gets, as many windows as possible must be kept open. Most people think that a smithy must be a very hot place, and it often is – in the summer. On a cold day the fire heats up your hands really well, it’s also pretty good at making your face warm, but doesn’t warm up anything else. Especially feet…

Mmm, warm face. The water bowl on the right was frozen every morning, and remained frozen until we put hot iron in it. 

Mmm, warm… uh, nothing really, except the iron. (By the way, blademaking is mind-numbingly boring.)

The small water tank by the fire remained frozen until hot iron was placed on top. The water in the toilet bowl froze as well. And in the sewage pipes. In order to do a number two I had to return to the master smith’s house (TMI? sorry) where I was renting a room. It was all a bit scary, somewhat strange, very alien, absolutely amazing. It was heaven. (No, not the number two. All the rest.)

I hope you don’t mind me not putting up a photo of the toilet for historical accuracy.

Blacksmithing is a very easy job. You start by learning all the basic techniques (that’s what I did within those eight days). Then you practice them for a decade or two, and you’re ready to conquer the world. I found out how to shape the metal, cut it, decorate, upset, taper, split, twist (this was weirdly disappointing, because it felt too easy), add variously shaped rivets, sharpen, soften, bend, round… Armed with those abilities I now only needed to find a place to practice upon my return to Amsterdam, as I had a feeling that the neighbours wouldn’t be pleased if I built a forge on my patio. I loved making nails and horseshoes – the first year of forging was largely me being super excited about the fact I’m doing anything – but the most exciting part for me was making roses.

Started on a rose.

One of the first things I knew about blacksmithing was that it was possible to make iron plants. I didn’t care about swords (good – few things are more boring than that), or horseshoes. I wanted to make roses. Both the master smith and his apprentice were helpful and encouraging – the only part I didn’t get to do myself was electric welding. I told them what my real motive was, other than just wanting to create magic – a flower made of iron, and they were both glad to help me fulfil that wish.

My mom, upon finding out I now wanted to be a blacksmith, cried a bit. Then she said two things. “You had such a great job with a computer!” (which almost killed me) and “But you are way too gentle to do something like that!”. When I returned from the course I handed her the rose you see below. The foot has the words “For mom” and the date stamped on. “If there is something I want to do,” I said, “nothing is going to stop me”. I still firmly believed it was true, and mom believed me too. I thought – if you ever tell me there’s something I can’t do, I’ll tell you to look at the rose. But she never tried to undermine me again, nor did she ever attempt to tell me I was making a wrong choice. Since the day I gave it to her, the rose remained the centerpiece of her small collection of photos and family knick-knacks, proudly displayed in the living room, eternal. This was one of the reasons I wanted to work with metal: there is a good chance my entire family will die, and this rose will still look the same as it did the day I made it.

Mom’s rose.

I’ve made horseshoes, nails, hinges, two roses, iron hearts, fireplace tools… and I’ve made my first sale. A family came by to visit – among other things, this forge was a tourist attraction – and wanted to buy something small as a little keepsake. The picked one of my nails, and asked about the price. The apprentice said nothing, pointing towards me. I had no clue how much a forged nail should cost. I named my price – around $1.50 – and got paid. I later framed those coins together with the diploma I received. The top photo plus the one below are selections from those eight days. (I have no clue what those sharpened chunks were for…)

I ruined my iPhone camera by leaving the phone uncovered at the forge.
I learned my lesson, and never bought a non-dustproof phone since.

A few of my Polish friends came over to visit me, and stayed overnight. While at one point it did get somewhat warmer outside, our last morning was hell frozen over. We waited for a bus to town, then we waited some more, and then another hour… We ended up looking like this:

Artur, Cristi, yours truly. As you can easily tell, I’m the one on the right.

Now I just had to find a place to practice forging in Amsterdam, a small, densely populated, definitely non-industrial town. I knew it wouldn’t be a piece of cake. But I had unshakeable faith in what I was doing, and the Gods were on my side. I knew I would, again, get what I wanted, and I was right. I mean – I was an arrogant prick, of course. But I was right. There was no limit to the amount of time and work I was willing to put into it, or to the amount of burns I was willing to sustain. This was something I learned from mom, too. When working on something I either put 100% of my energy and resources into it, or stop. There was no way I would stop forging. It was just a matter of finding out how to continue. When I handed her that rose, she must have seen her own determination in my eyes. She might not have said it, but she, too, knew I would fight as long as necessary. I had a confirmation: this was it. There was no way I would have given up a dream I didn’t even know I had.

To be continued…

Two of the biggest changes in my life took place within two days from each other. In fact – within less than 40 hours from each other. On December 8, 2011 I met my future husband. It took me an hour to fall in love (he was faster). On December 10, 2011 I met my first forge that I got to work at.

This is, or was back then, the inside of Sven de Lang Smederij.

The events that led to me hitting hot iron with a hammer for the first time were not pleasant. I suffered a burnout. At that time I was working as a graphic designer…except I actually wasn’t, because just looking at Photoshop made me nauseous. I was attending both regular therapy and seeing a work psychologist, who worked with me on figuring what else I can do. It was both terrifying – I have never had a job that wasn’t graphic design, from assistant to art director – and liberating. Because when you don’t know anything, that means you can pick whatever comes to mind, and you’ll suck at it. Whether it’s a sensible job or following a dream, you’re going to be equally terrible. In this frame of mind I bumped into another graphic designer with a burnout, and while browsing his portfolio I saw a fence he designed for, if I recall correctly, Westin or Sheraton hotel. (Coincidentally I used to work for both as a designer.)

“How interesting,” I said. “So you designed this and a blacksmith made it? I didn’t know blacksmiths existed outside of open air museums.”

“Oh yes,” said the other designer. “He gives short courses, why not try it?”

This was how I found myself on a train to Kampen, over two hours away from where I lived, shaking in excitement and anxiety, on my way to meet a Real Blacksmith.

We worked for six hours, with a lunch break. I was worried whether I would prove to be physically strong enough. That was not a problem. My pink, gentle hands were. First I got blisters. Then the blisters burst. Then the skin came off, replaced by coal dust. To finish things off, I hit my right hand with a hammer I was holding in the aforementioned right hand. I have no clue how exactly I managed that, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. I fell in love for the second time in three days. My hands hurt as hell, even though I didn’t get a single burn (that would change many times in the years to come), I was dirty as hell, my – ahem – work wasn’t top notch. I almost died when Sven handed me a gas torch as if it couldn’t explode any second. But I also knew this was it. Same as with my future husband. It wasn’t me wondering whether the choice would be right. I had firm, unshakeable knowledge that it was. I was right in both instances.

This is not the most brutal photo of my pain and suffering. I’m proud of it.

When I returned home, I was nearly unconscious from excitement. I placed my three works on the sofa next to me, stared at them longingly, then fired up YouTube to look at forging videos. Sound carried in the building where I lived, and my upstairs neighbour was home. I could only imagine what he thought about the bang-bang-bang-clang-clang sounds penetrating through his floor. But I had no time for imagining that, because I was watching the process of forging a rose.

I only wanted one thing: to go back. Immediately. The tiredness, the blisters didn’t count. One of the reasons for my burnout was producing materials that would stop being useless a few days later, or simply files. My computer looked the same before and after. When talking to the work psychologist I said that I loved working on my own, I loved fire, I loved working with my hands, I wanted to produce tangible objects, ones that would last, I wanted to use my muscles. We considered cage fighting, architecture, painting, but it just wasn’t it. Blacksmithing wasn’t even a dream. I seriously had no idea it was possible to do it in the 21st century, and similarly to every other guest at Sven’s forge I asked about shoeing horses. (Answer: very few blacksmiths shoe horses at all. In rare cases when it’s necessary a farrier takes care of that. And indeed, in the 4.5 years that I spent learning, then working I have only seen a horse being shod once. At a blacksmithing convention. All of us crowded around the master smith to see such curiosity. The horse was not happy.)

This proved to be very difficult to reproduce on my own later. So I tried until I made it.

There were two problems on my way to working with Sven. 1) He lived two hours away. Which would be quite a lot of commute. 2) He already had an apprentice. I begged anyway until he got a restraining order against me. Kidding! He just bought a taser. But even as I pleaded to be allowed to ruin my pretty hands and set myself on fire at his forge I knew that there had to be an easier way to do it. I just had to find that way. Every (half-burnt) cell of my body wanted to do this. The work psychologist was delighted – I made her job so much easier when we simply skipped the last four appointments. I found out what I wanted to do. I still received unemployment benefits. It was the perfect time to start learning my future job – in my head there was no way around it, this was it and there was no option I wouldn’t be pursuing that track.

Some of my ex-colleagues met me for drinks, and they confessed they were quite envious, because they had no idea what their dream job would have been. They just did their job because, well, money is nice, mortgages don’t pay themselves, plus it was the time of crisis, when jobs were scarce. This worked both for me (not a lot of people competed to become professional blacksmiths) and against me (not a lot of people had money to spend on handmade ironwork). But both the work psychologist and me agreed there was no point in me trying to do Reasonable Things – too many people were busy trying and failing to do the same Reasonable Things, but they had experience and knowledge I didn’t have. And forging was something I wanted to pursue so much that it seemed very unlikely I’d lose motivation.

There was just one problem. In the course of my life until then I already decided to become a guitarist (when I discovered I had to practice a lot I gave up), photographer (I discovered that I liked snapping a pic or two, but having to actually work on assignments bored me off my tits), painter, writer (I have quite a lot of first halves of first drafts, let me tell you), love and sex coach, and most probably things that I got over so fast I forgot I even tried them in the first place. But none of those things came with a warning I might stop enjoying them two days later. There was a non-zero chance I would get over forging, the same as I got over the idea of being a guitarist and a painter…and there was only one way to find out.

Power hammers are awesome.

To be continued…

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while already. I decided to finally write it when I read – on the fantastic Writing About Writing page by Chris Breechen – the following question a reader asked:

Casey asks:

Why can’t I sell my work? My friends all say it’s great.  I do fine if I submit it to some tiny zine that can’t [sic] promises its writers only exposure and glory, but I always get rejected at the places that pay. Even places that pay just a few cents a word reject me. Help!  This is so frustrating!! Am I just not as good as I think I am?

I am very aware of the fact that my book might not be as good or as life-changing as I like to think it is. There might be no readers interested in what I’m writing. Most people in the world don’t share my obsession with Iceland, its history, Norse Gods, or even (gasp!) blacksmithing. And that’s OK. In fact, I find this thought liberating.

I feel asking my friends to serve as beta-readers was a mistake. Most of our friends can’t find in themselves to tell us our writing sucks. One of them told me she never even read the first sentence, paralysed by the fear she would have to tell me the book is shit. In other words, by asking friends to tell me if they like the book I actually decreased the number of people willing to read it. I like to think (confirmed by the editor I work with) that I’m good at accepting constructive criticism. But I might just be saying that. I might just be deluding myself. I know that there were at least four of my beta readers who wouldn’t have lied to me when they said that they enjoyed the second draft I sent them, then provided me with actual constructive feedback. I thought they were wrong on many counts. A few rewrites later I have incorporated all of their remarks. They were right. All of them said they enjoyed the book. So did my husband. Assuming they were not just being nice, that means five readers interested in its final version, and all of those five will get the book for free. Which means selling 0 copies. I put the purchase a private island filled with Porsches on the backburner for now.

I used to not write anything, because of two fears. Fear of failure is kind of self-explanatory. Fear of success is perhaps less obvious, but a success means inevitable criticism from people who won’t like my writing. And there is no single book universally loved by everyone. Not even my personal favourites.

An international bestseller from last year, whose author is swimming in prizes has been recommended to me by quite a bunch of people whose tastes I trust. I managed about 1/3, suffering from second-hand embarrassment through every page. I decided to stop, despite people telling me “it will get better”. Because I have 300 unread books on my e-reader. Judging by the reviews, this book is exquisite. Judging by my experience…it isn’t. Not for me. I did not leave a negative review, because there was a chance it would have gotten better had I continued. I am sure she wrote the best book she could, as evidenced by all the praise from both critics and readers. That book was not good enough for me to bother reading it, and it takes a lot for me to give up on a book – in the last year it only happened twice, and the second one was also an acclaimed (and very, very, very long) bestseller.

In 2013, 304,912 books were published in the United States. That means 5863 books a week. Even if somehow the NYT bestseller list completely changed every single week, without any book staying in top 100 longer than seven days, it would mean 5763 books A WEEK wouldn’t see the top 100. Average sales of a debut novel published by one of the Big Five (is it Big Four by now?) are between 1,000 and 20,000. Anything over 10,000 is considered a very good result. Smaller press will get 250 to 5000 sales. (Source.) Having spent – so far – almost 18 months writing, researching, interviewing people, writing this blog, trying to get potential readers to notice my existence I had and still have to be aware that in the US alone 304,912 books (perhaps more in 2017) are competing for that attention. That’s excluding many, many books writers slaved over for years that never found a publisher, not even an agent.

The top selling book in 2014 was “50 Shades of Grey” with 8 million sales. The amount of bad reviews that book received was staggering. The amount of $100 notes in which E.L.James rolls daily, cackling (I like to imagine successful writers do that all the time) is also staggering. My fear of success came from believing that I would get the same amount of bad reviews. My fear of failure came from worrying I won’t sell 8 million books. None of those fears are realistic, if only because in order to get so many bad reviews one needs to sell 8 million books first, and none out of the 304,912 books published in 2013 managed to do so. (I’m aware I am comparing 2013 data with 2014 data.) Those both fears can be squashed by a calming thought that my book will never be published, I will never need to worry about any reviews, sales or lack thereof, so I can focus on writing and nothing else.

I happen to love doing research, editing, revising, watching the book turn from a shapeless blog into a sculpture of David. You’d think that’s not a very modest comparison, but truth is – personally I have zero interest in the sculpture of David. Does Michelangelo spend his days turning in his grave because of the fact I can’t be bothered to even look at pictures of his masterpiece? I sure hope not, because that would be a whole new level of creepy.

I have two favourite works of art, both placed in Reykjavik. One is the statue of Leifur Eiríksson, one is the Sun Voyager.

I don’t know how many people would name the statue of Leifur Eiríksson their favourite work of art, especially as it stands in front of the real landmark of Reykjavik, the rocket-shaped church Hallgrímskirkja. Perhaps 250 people? You can review EVERYTHING on the Internet now, and this statue averages 4.0 stars out of five. (Why the hell would anybody feel the need to give a statue a three-star review is beyond me.) I don’t think Alexander Stirling Calder, who designed it 90 years ago worried about his TripAdvisor reviews, or that the number of people wanting to take pictures of it might be smaller than of those in awe with Hallgrímskirkja.

When I look at my brother Leifur here, I realise how little I am actually risking. He got on a ship, fully aware he might never return (this is not something I have to worry about while writing), that he might waste time and resources, discover nothing, become a laughing stock among his peers – if he even makes it back at all. But he had an America to discover, so he went on the journey, and got rewarded. The worst that can happen to me is not a pile of rejections. The worst would be to stop writing. Leifur could have turned and announced “actually I think farming is my true calling”.

Will I ever get paid for my work? No idea. Am I as good as I hope I am? No idea. Does that bother me? Yes, sometimes. I get the “I am the absolute worst writer in the universe ever” thoughts a lot. I wait for them to pass, then – sighing – I go back to my two novels in progress (one nearing completion, one in second draft stage). I read an article recently where a published writer said she gave her book 100 rejections, then almost stopped, but a friend forced her to try a bit longer. The 112th agent signed her. Average time between the first time one starts properly writing and gets published is ten years. Average, not longest. Instead of being paralysed by the “what if I don’t sell eight millions” thought, I look at the e-mail in which the editor praises my work (I printed it out, laminated, then put next to replica of Sun Voyager in the spot where I write). Then I go back to writing. There will be tears at the querying stage, especially after 113th rejection. I’ll have the same thoughts as Casey over and over again. I’ll worry about that when I get there. I’ve got 8.5 years before I need to worry about sales figures.

Chris has this advice for Casey:

Casey, you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re putting your name out there and you’re working to improve your writing.

His advice is not addressed to me, but I’ll take it anyway.