Winner of the 2014 Maine Literary Awards for Memoir

Woodworker-author Peter Korn on the rewards of being creatively engaged

‘I think money and fame are poor yardsticks for measuring the actual value of creative work.’
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Friday, June 20, 2014 - 1:00pm
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Author Peter Korn standing on the back side of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, a nonprofit he founded and at which he serves as executive director. (Photo by Kay Stephens)

ROCKPORT — This past month, the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance announced the winners of the 2014 Maine Literary Awards. Of all the winners, a local author representing the Midcoast, Peter Korn, took home an award for a memoir featuring his latest book, Why We Make Things And Why It Matters (2013, David R. Godine).

Korn is the founder and executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, a nonprofit woodworking and design school in Rockport. And even though he has previously authored two successful how-to books on wood craftsmanship, he didn't set out to write his third book as a how-to manual. Nor did he actually set out to write a memoir, either, coincidentally.

"I spent five years writing every day until I thought I had a manuscript that I thought I was ready to show around," he said. "And it was another three years of editing until it got published. In the first version I wrote, there wasn't a word about myself in it. I was interested in why we make things from a psychological and philosophical point of view. But, when I showed it to people, the feedback I got was that it was so dry and boring. So, I thought 'OK, I'll anchor it in my experience and that will make the ideas more accessible.' I tried to put in the relevant parts of my own experiences as a professional furniture maker."

Don't assume this is just a book about furniture making. It's about taking the leap from safety into the self-employment of something you deeply love, a sort of do-or-die philosophy of the creative process itself. The book essentially asks the question: What does the process of making things reveal to us about ourselves?

"I'm a furniture maker, but I'm really not writing a book for furniture makers," he said. "It's a book about any form of creative engagement and I just happened to write about what I know."

A portion of a Publisher's Weekly review explains it. "In this philosophical reflection, Korn...takes readers on a journey both spiritual and personal, recounting his life spent as a builder and teacher."

Maine is a mecca for artists and self-employed creative entrepreneurs — that's a given. But what's not a given is the old chestnut, "Do what you love, the money will follow."

Success for a creative passion is never a guarantee, certainly not when one is still in apprentice mode. But Korn has spent a lifetime at his craft, moving from apprentice to master, from artist to teacher to the founder and executive director of a woodworking and design school. In essence, his journey is much like the shaping of a piece of furniture itself. It has taken imagination, dedication, missteps and thoughtful reconsideration. You don't just simply hold your dream in your mind's eye and wish upon it a la The Secret, hoping one day that the law of attraction will increase your wealth and success. It takes mindfulness, perseverance...and if you're lucky, that elusive spark that resonates with an audience.

"If you are a person with a creative passion, mainstream society these days only provides us with two yardsticks to measure the value of what we do," he said. "One of them is money and the other is fame. The corollary of that is that people make the assumption that it doesn't really count unless they're doing it professionally as a career and they're making money at it. I think that assumption is a mistake and that money and fame are poor yardsticks for measuring the actual value of creative work. That's not a recipe for a happy and fulfilled life. Creative work is a major source of fulfillment and that's what I chose to write about."

The book came out last November and since then, Korn has been on sort of a nontraditional book tour/speaking circuit, giving talks at craft and art museums in Maine, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., among other places. The book has been a commercial success with reviews and interviews in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, as well as American Craft, British Woodworker and Workwork magazines. With all this acclaim, he was still surprised when the Maine Literary Awards announced him as a winner.

"I love writing and books," he said. "To have won any sort of award for the literary value as opposed to the how-to book was really nice. I didn't know that that would ever happen to me in my lifetime."

Now that the book tour has mostly wrapped up, Korn is busy running the Center, as well as teaching full time. With everything he's got going on, he said he's down to making one major piece of furniture a year. As for writing? "I felt while writing the book that it was the one important thing I had left to do — to explore my own assumptions and beliefs and to work it into a form I could share with other people. Now, that that's done, I don't feel driven to write another one," he said.

Though Korn's book is not an instruction manual for any sort of particular craft, he does delve into the kind of advice that apprentices in the creative economy will find valuable.

"Creativity for me is having an idea and then doing the really hard work of manifesting it in the world in a way that matters. It doesn't matter if you're starting a business, founding a nonprofit school, writing a book or building a table, you still have to generate the idea. Then, in the process of bringing it into reality, you're learning things you've never learned before first hand, rather than forming your picture of the world that you've received from other people," said Korn.

To learn more about Why We Make Things And Why It Matters visit: peterkorn.com


Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com