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Burn bright, shoot straight: forging metal and forging story

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

by Ellen Santasiero | October 7, 2023

Photo: Ellen Santasiero

Forging an iron hook was supposed to be an easy task for those of us new to metalworking.

I was one of eight students at the Adirondack Folk School forge in upstate New York, where each of us had our own forge, anvil, and an array of smithing tools.

Our teacher Steve was a large man who wore wire-rimmed glasses, a gray-blond ponytail, and no gloves. When I entered his class, he asked if I had any experience in a forge. No. Metal working? No. How about welding? No. Hammering? Um.

Unfazed, Steve started and stoked a fire in the forge to which I was assigned. He raked through the blaze and pointed out chunks of coal, coke, and slag. Coke and coal burn differently, he said. Coal combusts dully, and smokes. Coke burns brighter, and its flames shoot straight. Slag is waste. It doesn’t burn; it just slows the fire down. Ah, I jotted in my notebook, slag is like extra words in a piece of writing. In the trash it went after Steve showed me how to remove it with a miniature hoe.

Steve then presented me with a long, skinny, four-sided steel bar, no bigger around than a pencil. This I was to work into a graceful hook that tapered into a curlicue at one end. He inserted the metal piece into the throat of the fire. When the metal bar glowed molten orange, he demonstrated the process of forging, and let me practice striking the heated metal at an angle with a snub-nosed hammer. Steve moved on to other students. I re-heated the metal, removed it, placed it on the anvil’s nose, and started banging out a curve like he'd showed me.

Ostensibly, I was there to make a hook, but really, I was there to discover how like, or unlike, forging metal was to forging sentences and paragraphs and stories. After all, we chose the image of a forge to represent what we do in the Forge creative writing program, so I wanted to discover how deep the analogy could go.

Circling back to my forge, the previously unflappable Steve saw me hesitate before hammering and he shouted, in German, no less: “Schmied wenn der eisen heiss ist! Strike while the iron is hot!” I struck, poorly, but then of course, because I am a writer, I put my tools down, picked up my notebook and asked him how to spell all that stuff.

For the next hour or so, I ferried my piece in and out of the fire, and clanged and clonked until the metal curved and I tapped out the decorative curlicue. My nose ran, my hair got in my face, and even though the shop was ventilated, my lungs contended with a steady flow of the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide that hung in the rafters above us.

Friends, I am here to tell you that, save for one important aspect, forging metal is nothing like forging sentences and paragraphs and stories. Forging metal is filthy, smoky, noisy, hazardous, and entirely physical. (This is not to say that it is not fun.) Writing is not any of those things unless you count the hazards of sitting and staring at a screen too much.

The important aspect the two processes share is that they are both iterative processes. Each require a constant going back and forth to the metal, or the material, as the case may be, to modify, re-shape, edit, and sometimes scrap the entire blasted work. Often, beginning writers are surprised by this. They’re dismayed by the amount of revising they must do. Writing is harder than they thought. They may rethink their commitment to the writing life. Does it get easier?

When asked in 2022 how she’s developed as a writer over her long career, American novelist Gish Jen said she’s more sure-footed than she was in her early years, but, she added, there is always more to learn. The bar keeps rising. I think we have to love the process, or let the process be the reward, which may be the same thing stated in two different ways.

Making the hook was hard. After acing the curve and the curlicue, the thing twisted beyond my control and I couldn’t seem to hammer it back. I cut the end off, flattened it, and called it a sculpture, to which Steve, calmer now, responded, “OK.” I was done. Eager to type up my notes and write this post, I coated my creation with a wax that smelled like sweet, rank cod liver oil and let it set a while, and then went home.

If I spent more time working at a forge, I suppose I’d find other correspondences between writing and smithing, maybe even poetic ones. Until then, I’ll just wish all of us the patience to make work that’s bright and shooting straight, like coke burning.

The writer workin' it.

Photo: Ellen Santasiero

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