Don’t Follow the Instructions

My wife found a set of plans for a child-sized raised bed garden, and since our oldest grandchild is about to turn four we decided a back yard garden of her own would be a good present. I made a copy of the materials list and headed to the big box lumber store, picked through the stacks until I found what the list said I needed, and stored them in the garage until yesterday morning.

When I read the assembly instructions, I realized immediately that, since 22 1/2” plus 3” does not equal 24”, I was going to have to rely on more than just the steps outlined. I made adjustments as I went and was doing fine until I got to the trim around the top, which called for more of one size board than I had purchased. At that point I tossed the instructions, looked at what I had, and improvised. I like how it turned out, and I think McKinley will too, but if I had cut the boards according to the directions, assembling it would have been impossible.IMG_0952

This bothers me for several reasons. First, and most obviously, the person posting the DIY project should have checked his math and materials list. Beyond that, though, is the notion of trusting what we read; I’ve joked for years about “it must be true, I saw it on the internet” but the introduction of bots to write and spread misinformation, along with the inability or unwillingness of some to make sure that what they’re writing or sharing is accurate may soon mean a change to “it must be BS, I saw it on the internet.”

Mostly, though, it bothers me that I’m going to have to change. I don’t usually read instructions or recipes or anything like that to see if it is possible to follow the directions. My concern has been whether or not I will like the recipe (kale smoothie – I don’t think so; a new marinade for grilled shrimp – absolutely). Or whether the project falls within my ability level. The fact that I’m going to have to determine whether or not the writer knows what they’re talking about is a change I’m not happy about having to make.

I am occasionally asked about self-publishing, since I have a number of books out, and one point I try to emphasize strongly is that, with self-publishing, the printer/distributor (Amazon, Ingram Spark, etc.) does not edit your manuscript. Their concern is whether the content is explicit or not and whether or not it fits on the page. This means that you can have a book that is full of misspelled words, logical impossibilities, and pieces of writing that go nowhere in particular, and it will be published and distributed. Self-publishing gives the author an enormous amount of control over what his or her finished work looks like, how much it sells for, and so on. It also gives the author an enormous amount of responsibility, if they want to be taken seriously.

Since a lot of what is found on the internet is self-published (including this piece), I guess I’m going to have to set aside the assumption that the author knows their stuff. It’s getting to the point, it seems, that the only people who know what they’re talking about are the comedians; like the court jesters of old, who could speak truth to power by wrapping it in a joke, comics can hide the truth in plain sight. I’m not talking about those who specialize in the cheap shot. That’s not comedy; that’s insult, and takes little skill or insight to pull off.

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A career working with teenagers on the fringes of society has made me both sensitive to and appreciative of the complexities of character and the struggles, inner and outer, that we all wrestle with in one form or another. My writing emphasizes character development over action, and, as a lifelong Southerner, the rhythms and cadence of the Southeastern United States influence both my spoken and written voice.

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