Chris Mears and I are having an interesting conversation about why we’re doing the craft. Chris approaches the topic as one looking for both inspiration and direction, while I’m searching for the next challenge after forty-plus years of doing the usual stuff.

We both have the needed skills and understand the commitment involved in practicing this craft on a serious level and trying to understand where Chris is in his journey helps me reflect on my own. I also have a growing sense we’re not the only ones at such turning points.

Chris has shared excellent observations, such as how many of his prior choices were based on available hobby products rather than what would truly engage him on a deeper level. I think we all go through that stage and sadly, many never grow beyond it. Chris is ready to move beyond such limitations and understands that ongoing satisfaction involves a different context. But what context exactly?

This strikes me as a significant question, one the literature of the craft ignores. As we corresponded, he mentioned how the typical magazine article goes as follows, and I’m paraphrasing: “I grew up watching SP steam (doing whatever) and ever since I’ve been in love with those magnificent smoke-belching monsters and my layout recreates those halcyon days of yore. Here’s my hobby shop and lumberyard shopping list used to build it.” (Translated as, I used ME code70 flex track and turnouts, Walthers Cornerstone buildings, Woodland Scenics, blah, blah, over a grid style bench work made from… (Yawn…))

For those born after 1985 or even after 1955, how are we to relate to this? As experienced modelers we know the how-to conventions and the product list but as Chris wondered, what about why did you make this choice versus another?

“Well, I ahhh… Umm, gee, I got nothing here.”

Exactly. Most of us never give the reasons behind our choices a second thought, or a first one for that matter. We just measure the available space and start throwing lumber and model train stuff at it until it’s full. Then we do it all over again because it was so much fun the first time. (Yay, spending money. Hurray!)

What compels you?
Chris is ready to move toward a project that he hopes will bring him long-term satisfaction. If I understand our discussion correctly, he’s ready to commit to serious work but is struggling to decide on a direction that is compelling for him.

Having done my own soul-searching, I knew the typical generic advice would be less than useless. All I can do is sympathize over the task ahead of him. (A relatively enjoyable one I hasten to add.) I did, however, share a couple of past layout stories and my decision process involved.

One centered on the massive, doomed from the start, PRR in Richmond which never really made it off the drawing paper (thank God). I shared how a couple of treasured childhood memories were to become prominent scenes on this layout and how it all came to a screeching halt when I realized the futility I was embracing.

Why futile? Because I could never recreate such memories in physical form to my satisfaction. There are too many intangible elements, such as the crisp autumn air punctuated by the warm blast of diesel exhaust, as I stood on a street overpass watching a long freight come out of the yard and passing mere feet below me. What about the warmth of steam radiators in the depot waiting room, or the comforting presence of my dad on those outings? None of that translates into model form. On a visceral level, if not conscious, I realized such memories are better left to the mind, rather than a lifeless imitation in 1:87.1 scale. Yes, imagination would fill in such blanks for many people, but I made the right decision for me.

With the weight of that albatross lifted, I turned to a different set of memories surrounding the yard engine working a decrepit siding that ran next to our house. I loved the slow methodical motion of the loco and cars moving along this track, the accessibility of being right there with the action by pacing along on my bike up and down a street that ran the length of the spur.

Again, I left those specific images to my memory, but the slow running, ponderous motion qualities I loved would translate into many forms I could model. To this day, those qualities of slow methodical train movements inspire my modeling choices.

Why am I doing this?
How did you get to where you are in the craft? Ever reflect on that? I confess I didn’t until I felt a sense of dissatisfaction with my work and began asking questions about what inspires me now? After forty years, umpteen layouts and countless models, what do I really want to do with these skills and knowledge? Do I have anything original to say about railroading, or am I just biding my time following convention, until the last train pulls out of the station?

These questions will never make the pages of Model Railroader nor, I suspect, anywhere else, which is a shame because they’re questions modelers like Chris are asking in earnest and our conversation about them has been enlightening on so many levels.

Could we find a different set of questions?
Chris suggested that we need a different set questions and I agree completely because how we describe the craft frames our view of it. Further, our words illustrate whether we are being pushed toward certain ends or pulled toward ones of our choosing. The hobby as product mindset pushes people toward certain outcomes focused around ongoing habits of consumption and choices based on availability. You see this at work in the typical magazine article described earlier with its product-centric emphasis.

However, contrast this with the mindset of an individual making considered choices based on ideas, qualities or themes that hold great meaning or significance on an emotional level. Such a person is being pulled toward an outcome of their choice and their motivation comes from a very different place. The difference between the two is how the subject is framed. One asks what’s available; the other asks what do I want? One externally motivated, the other internally.

What questions might we ask? It’s hardly an exhaustive list but here’s a start.

If you had one, what was your first encounter with a train?
What impression did that encounter make?
Who was with you or were you alone?
What quality of railroads stirs your imagination? Why? (C’mon, you knew the why question was coming.)
Can this quality be reproduced in miniature?

This picture needs a new frame
I suppose every model building craft has their own conventional mindset and people who push the boundaries of it, along with those who believe the status quo is just peachy. And, I imagine that the other crafts are swimming in product choices as much as we are.

Here’s the thing: when getting products is no longer an issue, when the basics are well-known but no longer satisfy or offer a challenge, what then? That’s the question many experienced modelers are coming to grips with. It’s the conversation that’s missing and one we could all learn from. Thanks, Chris.