In the 70s, when I was working as a carpenter by day, and writing my first novel, “The Search for Goodbye-to-Rains” during the evenings, hanging out in the coffee shops of Marin County.
Nearly got killed on my first carpentry job – two times!
So why did I keep on doing the job? Well, after I’d graduated from college with a top honors degree in English, I found to my horror that all I could do to earn my keep was to talk.
To me that seemed feckless, to a repugnant degree. I didn’t want to turn myself into a sluggish, pale, soft inmate of the Ivory Tower.
I preferred to add some hard, practical skills to my vague repertoire. Turn tough. Be a carpenter, a steel worker, a stone mason. You know, get some feck!
I must admit, also, I’d fallen into deep fealty to an “On the Road” fantasy of the Beat writers. I felt drawn to an idea of becoming a true, blue-collar artist. I wanted to create great poetry and fabulous fiction while simultaneously working as a train brakeman, or a commercial seaman, or even a laborer in a tire-shop, just as many of my terrific, Beatific heroes had – according to their own glorious accounts.
I figured such a process would add an earthy and sensible realism to all of my scribbling.
And so – after fleeing Florida – it came to pass that I found myself grinding out sawdust and banging nails on an industrial construction site in California by day, and hanging out in coffee shops at night, smoothing out rough drafts of my first novel.
Hitting the Nail on its Head
That combo of demanding physical work followed by exacting mental exertion seemed ideal for a young man who felt desperate to proceed to construct a life. The experience delivered precisely what I’d hoped to find. However, unexpectedly, I found that some of the material skills that I was developing seemed to translate directly into writing performance.
Take hammering, for example. It seems simple. And in essence, it is. But a great deal of subtlety goes into making a hammer blow precise and effective. The most important part is keeping your eye on center of the hammer’s beveled head and ensuring it contacts the nail head at the same place, with the same force, and in the same plane. Accomplish that, and the nail – even one with a thin shank and narrow head, like a 4d (fourpenny) or 6d (sixpenny) finish nail – will get shoved into the receiving material at a steady rate without bending. Then you can finish up with a light blow that sets it without so much as denting the material.
In writing, the parallel is setting the right word in a sentence. Select it carefully, seat it well the first time, and pound the impression home without overdoing it.
In carpentry, a bad nailing job can mean that you have to rip out and waste a whole board. In writing, a crappy and heedless sentence means that you have to attack the entire job of presenting your meaning all over again. Who needs that? Invest all the time and attention you need to get your basics right the first time. Then you can move on, and build confidently on top of what you’ve already accomplished.
See What You Saw
Sawing is another discipline that involves more than might meet the eye at first glance. “Measure twice, cut once,” has become a cliché for the damn good reason that the principle is simply and elegantly true. (When driving on highways, I check my side mirrors twice before changing lanes for the same reason.) Yet the process of making smaller pieces of wood out of big ones has many other lessons to offer.
I was fortunate enough that older carpenters recommended I not handicap myself by purchasing crappy tools that I’d soon need to replace. Start yourself off with the good stuff, they said, and that will help you polish your moves instead of hindering your development. Word! So I followed their advice and got expensive Sandvik handsaws, made of the finest and keenest Swedish steel.
And those saws taught me that committing with confidence to the first draw and pull of the blade can set you up well for making all the rest of your cut. Whereas being doubtful, or inattentive or jittery can equally well screw up your cut and make it fall out of plumb or square – and thus form a bad fit for the rest of your material.
I transfer this understanding to writing as a willingness to be confident about what you intend to say, and a willingness, even an eagerness, to cut away such portions as fail to contribute. Don’t dither around about this, simply go ahead and do it! Hit your line and saw away a will.
From Foundation Ditch to Ridge Cap
I suppose I could make similar claims and metaphorical assessments about the proper use of other tools, but I shan’t waste your time by doing this with ALL of ‘em.
Brace-and-bit drills, for example? Boring!
Instead, I’ll pound one obvious point, and then finish up by addressing a more covert theme.
Take the time and make the effort to get simple but important things right. Build a foundation plumb, level and square, and you’ll encounter far less trouble putting sheathing on the roof. Overbuild the foundation forms, and you won’t have to go through the heartbreak of watching them slump while they’re being stressed during the concrete pour.
But beyond building strictly to spec and blueprint, watch and listen carefully to all subtle signals. Construction is not all pounding blows, singing sawblades and chattering jackhammers.
I opened this piece by claiming that I nearly died twice in my first year as a carpenter. That’s a bit like hanging Chekov’s pistol on a wall in my opening act. Now, I should yank its trigger. Let me fulfill the promise in my premise – which is actually the core task of any story-teller.
The job was rescuing a string of condo buildings built with inadequate foundations along the shore of Corte Madera Creek, near the ironically-named Lucky Drive. The crew and I had to create new foundations, then jack those buildings up, slide I-beams under them, and secure them to the fresh underpinnings.
I was crouched in a crawl space, pumping a hydraulic jack with a 30-ton rating, when I heard the blocks placed under it start to creak. “If I was smart,” I thought, “I would not be facing this thing.” So I laid down on my back and reached over my head to work the handle. Two pumps later, the thing exploded, ricocheting between steel and concrete, and knocking chips out of both. However, it did not plow a path through my body en route to beating up the new foundation.
The second event came after I rigged one of the I-beams to a crane, and was gripping one end as I and another apprentice directed the weighty thing into an alley between the buildings. I felt a strange vibration arrive through my gloved fingertips. I glanced at the rigging. A link on the massive chain from which the beam dangled was beginning to pull open. “Jump!” I yelled to my companion, and took my own advice. A split-second later, the heavy beam crashed down and buried itself in the mud… a few inches from my legs.
There’s an undercurrent of wisdom at large and loose in this world. Be sensitive to it. Tap into it, and make it your friend. This principle works equally well for construction, for writing, and for life. In short, trust your intuition. It could prove much smarter than the rest of you. And that j-u-s-t might save your bacon instead of carbonizing it.