Three conversations from last week were all variations on a theme.

Conversation No. 1:
In an email exchange with a friend I asked whether or not he might be stuck in an analysis/paralysis loop that is hindering his progress. He admitted to the possibility but added that his main source of indecision is that he has too many choices.

Conversation No. 2:
Centers on a response from a reader who expressed his surprise at my admission of how long it took for me to realize that the layout is a form of artistic expression. I was pressed for time and typed a quick reply but thought I should offer a more in-depth answer.

How does one add value to others in this craft?
We all appreciate good conversations and the exchange of ideas among peers. For many, that’s the heart and soul of their hobby. Where this often falls short is in the fact that too many of us, myself included, are quick to offer biased opinions thinly disguised as “advice.”

In the email exchange with my friend, I could have made suggestions for how to pick a favorite theme, prototype, era and on. I didn’t for the simple reason that: a), he didn’t ask and b), he doesn’t need my suggestions. It would be arrogant on my part to assume I know more than he just because I’ve dealt with a similar choice. Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. Because I’m unable to understand, as he does, the choices before him, my opinions and experiences are of limited value.

In my view, the best value I can offer my friend is more questions that spur his thinking. He has too many choices in front of him and he’s seeking clarity about them. Clarity is something he has to find on his own by working through the various decisions that need to be made. Doing the hard work of identifying what he actually wants from the craft will make whatever path he chooses truly his own, rather than a poor imitation of anothers. The work required will make him a stronger modeler in the long run, rather than one who doubts his every move and is dependent on others to do his thinking for him.

Time to shred the tidy little boxes
I don’t know about other parts of the world but here in the US we tend to put ideas in tidy little boxes and keep them separate. Railroad modeling is this thing over here and art, or whatever, is that other thing over there and, let’s not get them confused!

David made an excellent point with his comment to my post from last week. My thinking can be as rigid and uninspired as it gets and in my quick reply, I confessed how I missed the obvious connection that he saw. This is why I said it’s taken an embarrassing length of time to realize the conventional approaches weren’t working for me. For the longest time, I thought the dissatisfaction and frustration I felt was my fault. I was doing all the things the books and magazines said to do, so why was I unhappy with the results? Because (light bulb moment) even though I thought they were the results I wanted, they actually weren’t. I finally realized the model train box was too small for my tastes and over a long period of time, I eventually figured out what works for me.

We have good sources of hobby literature that will give you a solid start or help you along the way. However, like so many disciplines model railroading has grown insular over the years. Conventional wisdom is just that, conventional. The techniques and mindset work for the most part but, they all lead to the same predictable place. As a result, the world has plenty of me-too layouts featuring the flavor of the month ideas, whatever they might be.

This is where, in my view, the literature falls down. It’ll guide you along a well marked trail to a certain spot and from there? Well, you’re on your own. Perhaps that’s as it should be but too many folks never realize there’s a bigger world of relevant and interesting things to explore beyond the conventional hobby view.

Take care now lad, there be dragons out there!
People stop exploring because no one bothers to explain how new and strange sounding ideas can fit in this tidy but small box we call model railroading. We keep reinventing the tools and techniques but seldom consider other ideas of what the craft could become. (Like referring to it as a craft instead of “it’s just a hobby” for example.)

The new is often unknown and scary. Folks want the comfort of the familiar and push back against those who say there’s more out there. “You like art so much, go be some flaky painter. Just leave the (my!) hobby alone, cause it ain’t broke.”

I truly get it. A lot of people just want an escape from whatever stress characterizes their daily life. A lot of people aren’t remotely interested in using model building as a learning tool. Craftsmanship? Well, that’s really nice but not for me. Thanks anyway.

Here’s the thing, I’m not forcing any of this on anyone. We’re all on a path of some kind but there are a lot of different paths to explore. My path doesn’t have to be yours and vice versa but, I believe everyone deserves a seat at the table. This is one of the most wide ranging and creative activities I know, so why wouldn’t we explore and learn from the other creative arts?

Conversation No. 3:
Occurred during a pleasant evening with a couple who came for dinner. The wife is a skilled musician and teacher and we were talking about how her students’ attitude toward the work affects their progress when she said something telling: “After a certain age you (the student) have to take ownership of the work.” In other words, you have to become internally motivated to practice rather than wait to be prodded by mom and dad.

The students who go on to become accomplished musicians, whether amateur or professional, have taken ownership of their music. This is just as true in our craft as any other. Those who become accomplished modelers have taken ownership of their work and learning process. And that’s the common thread running through all three conversations.

I can only guess what others take from these weekly posts but I like to believe that part of the value this blog offers is to acknowledge that I’m on the path too. I shudder to think that anyone believes I have it all figured out. I don’t and I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to admit it. What I’m doing here is sharing my process of taking ownership of the work. That’s what my email friend is doing and what many of you who comment here are also doing. Taking ownership means eliminating excuses or not becoming a slave to external circumstances like a manufacturer who decides to retire and close the business. Taking ownership means that if you’re not happy with things, the only one who can fix that is you.

This isn’t good news to people who want simplistic solutions or someone else to be responsible for their happiness in the hobby and let’s just finally say it: we’re talking about two different approaches and mindsets here. Lots of people want this craft to stay just the same as it’s always been, while others are eager to take it farther. The belief that it has to be one or the other for everyone is the source of the conflict and ego wars we have and this blog is not about that.

Thinking of the work as a craft or a form of art isn’t for everyone but, it’s the path I’ve deliberately chosen and I’m grateful for the company and encouragement of those who feel the same.

My regards and, because we’re all on a different path, your mileage will vary.


  1. Simon

    I like to believe that part of the value this blog offers is to acknowledge that I’m on the path too

    Certainly, but you also ask questions, and better still, get others to ask their own questions of themselves.

    The parallel I would draw with your story about the music teacher is that she is talking about students becoming accomplished performers: at best, nuanced interpreters of existing works. What about the composer? The singer-songwriter? I suggest that this is the step beyond the train set box, and yet again a wonderful thing about the craft.

    If I may share one of my own self-questions, “How little do I need to satisfy myself?” (This based on the precept that I prefer a high level of hand built detail to opening lots of boxes. That much I do know!)



  2. mike

    “What about the composer? The singer-songwriter? I suggest that this is the step beyond the train set box, and yet again a wonderful thing about the craft.”

    An excellent distinction Simon. Yes, our work does relate to these aspects in many, many ways.

    Your question of “how little” is an interesting one that I suspect few ever ask. It’s the opposite of the conventional thought of how can I include more of (fill in the blank). We two, and others with similar mindsets, have learned to see the value of focus. Have learned to appreciate the idea of letting an object speak for itself rather than have its impact be drowned out by an overcrowded environment. You’re thinking in terms of what is gained rather than lost. Too bad more folks can’t learn the distinction between the two.