On Venturing Into the Unknown

This post is a full-on experiment, guys. I hope you’ll come with me for the ride.

The thing is, a cool thing happened to me recently that I wanted to write about — it seemed worthy. At first I didn’t consider it for the blog. I don’t know why; it just wasn’t my first reaction. Maybe I thought there was nothing useful in it. I’m trying to avoid just being in my own headspace and make sure I’m sharing stuff that’s helpful to you creatively.

But then I thought, well, why not? It’s a fascinating story, and it’s related to creative pursuits … but when I started to consider writing a blog post about it, I thought, but I don’t know what I learned. Maybe it’s not worth writing about. But … I want to! And then I thought of my essay from a couple of weeks ago about why I write, which you can find here, and I thought, well, maybe I will figure out what I learned by writing about it.


So, my dear readers, I am writing this post about a recent experience I had in the hope that I will, by writing about it, learn what I learned from it. Got that?

Perhaps somewhere in here, you’ll learn something, too, though I haven’t the faintest idea what, yet.

I hope you can trust me.

My boyfriend and I like to get out of town now and then, when we can, to wherever we can get to. Ergo, we spent New Year’s Eve and a couple of days after that in Portland, Maine. I chose Portland because its red brick buildings and waterfront cuteness appealed to me, and because, well, Maine. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean. I have a friend whose family has a summer house there, and he always rhapsodizes about going up there in the summer with a magical tone in his voice. I never quite understood why he was so like that about it until I’d gone to Bar Harbor a couple of times. Having now also been to Portland, I get it. From the stunning natural beauty to the New England quaintness (without the creepiness of Cape Cod or Block Island) to the fresh local foods and food products (raw honey! hot sauce! blueberries!) and the friendliness of the people, never mind the smell of the air! … you want to be in Maine. I want to be in Maine.

We were in Maine.

On the day we were heading home, we decided to go to the art museum first. On our way in, the boyfriend spotted an intriguing building. It was built on one of those corner plots, and it had a dark green doorframe. It was two stories, and in the window above the door there was a sign that read “Acoustic Artisans” circled around the body of a stringed instrument. It was hard to tell from far away and down below what kind of instrument it was.

“I want to go in there,” he said. “Remind me. We have to check that out when we come out.”

So when we finished with the art musuem, we headed over to Acoustic Artisans, opened the door, and stuck our heads in. We were facing a wooden staircase. We looked up it and looked at each other.

What was it?

A man came to the top of the stairs. He was in his late fifties or early sixties, a bit round, with tufty gray hair on either side of his head and warm, intelligent eyes. He wore a dark apron. If I were designing a magician who was trying to pass in the real world as a normal human for a novel, this guy was perfect. He looked utterly normal, and yet there was something magic about him.

“Can I help you?” he said.

My boyfriend explained that we had seen the sign and were just wondering what the place was.

“I make violins,” he said. “I can show you around if you want.”

We wanted.

Upstairs there was a large performance space with well-kept hardwood floors.

Beyond that lay a room about half the size of my studio apartment in New York. Directly in front of us stood a desk hung with wood-working tools. Everywhere there were cabinets. Above the desk on the left hung a series of bows. A row of finished violins hung from a rack in the right corner of the ceiling. Several violin-shaped pieces of wood laid in a row on another surface, clamped in vices. I wish, in retrospect, that I had asked if I could take pictures. I was in so much awe that I didn’t even think of it at the time. (In fact I didn’t even think of it until this very moment of writing it.)

It was a freaking violin-making workshop.


I felt like I had stepped back in time to a world where this sort of thing happens as a matter of everyday life; you’re going about your business and then you stumble on the violinmaker’s workshop. In my world, in my life, this sort of thing only happens in stories. This is why I write them, to create magical places like this. I don’t expect them to exist, and I certainly don’t expect to walk into them on any old Saturday afternoon.

(Of course, we were in Maine.)

The violinmaker’s name is Jonathan Cooper. He’s on the Internet. He’s kind of famous, at least to people who know violins. We talked to him for approximately twenty minutes. Or rather, my boyfriend talked, while I listened and looked around with my mouth half open. Because that’s what I do when I walk into magic all of a sudden.

(I did not take notes on the conversation, and my memory for exact wording is iffy at best. Therefore, anything I’ve attributed to Jonathan Cooper is a paraphrase, at best, and certainly not a direct quote. Some of it may even be semi-madeup. But the ideas are true. It represents what they talked about, if not exactly how they talked about it.)

My boyfriend asked how hard it would be to make a guitar.

Jonathan Cooper, violinmaker, said, “It’s no big deal. You just have to do it.”

He didn’t say “You’re too old and you will not have time to learn it,” even though he’s been doing it for 40 years.

He didn’t say, “You can’t do that. It’s too hard and it will cost too much and you don’t have a workshop.”

He didn’t say, “This is an ancient art! How dare you come in here and presume to think you might be able to do such a thing without endless painful years of study, you upstart lad, you!”

He said, “There are workshops everywhere. If you don’t want to buy everything, go find one. Use it.”

He said, “The wood for guitar making is not expensive.”

He said, “Guitars all have the same basic shape. It’s not that hard to put one together.”

He said, “Guitar-making doesn’t even take this much space,” meaning the size of his violin-making workshop.

Each and every concern my boyfriend raised, Jonathan Cooper dismissed with the shrug of one shoulder. If you’re into it, you have to try it out, was his unshakeable attitude. Every last answer he gave was, essentially, “Eh. That’s not a problem. You can solve that.”

He said, “You have to do it. Make the mistakes. Make a mistake once. Maybe make it a second time. The third time, you won’t make that mistake. You have to go through the process.”

You have to go through the process.


This is what Jonathan Cooper gave me, in this little moment in time. A reminder that there ain’t no rushing it. Learning an ancient creative art, whatever it is, means you have to start, and you have to do it, and you have to keep doing it, and you have to give yourself that time to make those mistakes.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the novel I’m about to self-publish is the third one I wrote. I made a lot of mistakes the first time. I made some different ones the second time. The third time, I had learned a thing or two, and I stopped making those mistakes.

Via Wired to Create by Scott Barry Kaufman & Carolyn Gregoire:

“To foster creativity, it is important to build people’s confidence and competence to learn new information and deal with adversity; make tasks conducive to flow by engaging them in the appropriate level of challenges; and help them develop supportive, positive social relationships.”

That day in Portland, Maine, in the attic of that strange corner building, Jonathan Cooper did that for two people. He dashed our fear and our intense perfectionism against his solid confidence and cheery willingness to jump in feet first and let the process be what it is. I felt better about my own work after listening to him, even though it’s nothing to do with violin-making. Fighting to be a maker-of-things is the same across disciplines. He didn’t even treat it like a big deal. You just have to do it, he said.

Okay. I’m doing it, and here it is. I’m sharing it, and I’m trying to learn from whatever mistakes I’ve made one or two times and not make them a third.

Jonathan Cooper may also have put some kind of magic spell on us. I’m not sure about that bit, but I’m inclined to think so.


Wired to Create by Scott Barry Kaufman & Carolyn Gregoire (this is a new book I’ve just started reading, so I can’t comment on what it’s like all the way through, but so far it’s interesting)

Why I Write: A Love Letter to This Thing I’m Trying to Do

Jonathan Cooper, Violin Maker

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6 thoughts on “On Venturing Into the Unknown

  1. “…and looked around with my mouth half open. Because that’s what I do when I walk into magic all of a sudden.”

    That line, in and of it self, shows us EVERYTHING you felt. Good stuff.

  2. What a beautiful sentiment. It sounds like a wonderful place and makes me think a little of Ashland Oregon for some reason. I’m on the opposite coast and haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Maine, but it’s now on my list of places to see. 😀

    • I recommend both Portland (especially if you like to eat!) and Acadia National Park. I haven’t been to Oregon, yet, myself, but I’d love to road trip all over the Pacific Northwest. Ashland looks beautiful. :)

  3. Haven’t signed up yet so I don’t know whether this post will take. ‘Inspiration’ at its best. If this blog post is an example of your writing, you certainly have ‘snatched’ my interest! At first while reading I thought to myself, ‘Mary, forget it you don’t write and write and write; in fact I write ‘ in creative spirts’, which by everything I read is not a formula to successfully share your thoughts with others. As someone who as a child played (not that well mind you) but nonetheless was enamored by the beauty of the music of the violin I was right there with you and your boyfriend as you were dazzled by the ‘magic’. Thank you for sharing this experience. Sharing this with you brought wonderful childhood and hopeful thoughts to the fore.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Mary! As it happens, you are number 100 on my email subscriber list. Time for a giveaway to celebrate; stay tuned this week for details. :)

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