The Master’s Dance

“Oh, you just cannot write a paper like this!” I remember being told by a university tutor. Well, thanks, I cannot write like this, but … uhm, how exactly am I supposed to write? — “Pfffsst,” he replied, shrugged his shoulders and left it at that. I passed the course, but this hiss kept haunting me for weeks.


It took me many years to realize that writing is a craft. In high school, a typical assignment was: “Here is a chapter of Faust. No go write an interpretation. You have an hour.” Years later, our essay course at university was blessed with a visiting lecturer from the U.S. She was the first person to actually teach me the craft of writing.

The high school teacher plonked a block of wood on our desks, hoping for the best. The essay tutor at uni explained hammer, saw and carving knife.

Learning and Dancing

Skills can be taught implicitly, as in Tai Chi Chuan – where the student is “only” watching the teacher perform – or explicitly, as in a carpenter’s apprenticeship. But just learning a skill is not enough to become a master of the craft. Only when the student becomes self-conscious of his progress and of himself can he begin to break out of the master-student duality.

To become a master, you need to leave the skill behind and find your own true value in what you’re doing. At first, a student does as he is told and, consciously or unconsciously, aligns his values with the master’s. This is necessary to learn the skills, but only after finding one’s own values it is possible to bend the rules and reach mastership.

There is, however, no well-defined cut-off point at which one could say, “I’m a master now.” Instead, you’re dancing your way to mastership: Make a side step to escape your master’s gaze, and you can look down your own future path, extending to the horizon. A half turn later, your master is back, sternly towering over you and adjusting the saw’s position in your hand.

A dance between what you know already and what you don’t know yet, a dance between your own and your master’s values, bending the rules back and forth with every bar, discovering surprising cadences along the way, some resolved quickly, and some suspended for years until their resolving chords are found.

Some say this dance never ends. I think they are right.