Overcoming the I don’t wannas…

“Writing is hard for every last one of us — straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”

Cheryl Strayed, author of the 2012 bestseller Wild, later made into a 2014 film starring Reece Witherspoon, wrote these words in her “Dear Sugar” advice column, published on the literary website The Rumpus (2010-12). This particular passage appeared in a piece she titled “The Art of Motherfuckitude,” to advise a frustrated young writer who had trouble finding her muse.

On title alone, I just had to read that.

And while I’m certain my younger days have come and gone, I do hear Strayed’s writing message loud and clear: Get to work! Quit whining, dammit! Dig!

Her focus on work resonates with me, stemming from many hard days put in at the farm growing up, I suppose. Work was important to those I cared about most. So I worked hard, and admired those who did likewise. I never shoveled coal, as it were, but I have dug postholes, spent many a day lifting heavy objects, and even enjoyed nearly a quarter century behind the keyboard as a professional journalist. 

There are drawbacks, of course, to being a workhorse, particularly when you get paired with people who are the polar opposite. A single gabby or lazy individual can slow the work of entire crew. That’s why they are typically weeded quickly in most manual labor jobs. Of course, when it comes to such jobs, the yardstick of work progress is obvious. Is that fence finished? Did that building get built? How many carts of coal did you fill?

The measure of a writer’s workday is much less transparent. Many of my days in journalism were spent simply talking to people, interviewing them for stories or simply building a rapport so they might be a little freer with words when you needed them to be. For someone accustomed to busting hump, it took some getting used to. Even back at the office, when those spoken words became copy, one could blow a good part of any day simply discussing a story before a single word was ever written. Thank God for deadlines.

Unlike those manual labor jobs where an obvious and logical order must be followed, knowing where to start with writing can be a task in and of itself. Just imagine the standing around that might occur if the roofing man showed up first at a build site, before the foundation was even poured, or if you tried nailing barbed wire to posts that weren’t in the ground yet.

Sure, writing has its formalities and structures, but mostly in the finished product. I can’t tell you how many stories I actually wrote the ending or middle parts to long before a lede was ever dreamed up. There is no logic to how words become stories in the act of actual writing. 

That doesn’t help any, of course, staring at a blank screen. The words don’t magically rain down from the heavens. As Strayed so eloquently put it, that’s when you have to dig. Soldier on. Fight like hell. Pray for a miracle, in some cases.

I developed a few tricks over the years. Sometimes, that meant focusing on some random aspect of a story, a mere detail or description, and finding the words for it alone. Forget ledes or plots or character development. Focus on that one specific thing and write. Force it, if need be. Even if those words ultimately wind up in the wastebasket, I always found, they got me going, if nothing else.

But tricks don’t always equal treats.

A few years back, for instance, I found myself one of who-knows-how-many-reporters sent to bring home stories on Hurricane Ike. I rode with my buddy, Ed, who manned a video camera. I worked for a monthly farm magazine back then; he shot footage for a news show on the RFD-TV network. 

We hadn’t made it an hour from home before we began to see evidence of just how monstrous Ike was. Cars lined the ditches outside Navasota, awaiting their turn at the gas pumps, one of our last stops south where people still had working power in the storm’s aftermath. Although still morning, we wouldn’t make our way into Anahuac, our intended destination, until almost nightfall. Roads were closed; traffic rerouted. Each town we passed featured its own version of makeshift camps, filled with hundreds of line workers from across the country dispatched days ago to help Texas get its lights back on.

We spent nearly a week there, sleeping in the truck and surviving on beef jerky and bottled water, as we made our way into some of the most damaged areas, talking to people who lost all. The devastation was unreal: buildings, splintered; carcasses and corpses everywhere. A full two-thirds of Chambers County was underwater. We even had to backtrack once to find our way around some enormous sea vessel that blocked our road, a full 30 miles from the coast. Or at least, where the coast used to be.

For those who have never witnessed such a thing, surreal takes on all new meanings. Sure, it’s all shocking at first, but even dead bodies and piles of rubble where buildings once stood begin to seem ordinary after about Day 3. People’s horror stories about surviving the storm’s worst all begin to sound the same. About the time everyone stinks like week-old socks, societal norms begin to get weird, especially when everyone there is standing around power-less:

Get out the way, Mr. Governor. This guy magically turned water into ice…

We finally made it back home at the end of Day 5, sleep-starved and badly needing baths. Although I had seen firsthand the freak show playing out in the Dark Half of Texas, most everyone else was happily oblivious to it, back where the lights still worked. Just moving from one extreme to the other took some getting used to. Plus, I had hundreds of pictures to sort, hours of video footage and interviews to organize, and six pages of my magazine to fill by Tuesday.

Overwhelmed was an understatement as I sat at my computer, staring at that blank screen.

Where to begin?

That particular day, I began by simply transposing one of my taped interviews, word by word. As those words became paragraphs, I found they tied to other interviews and experiences. Before long, paragraphs became entire accounts and my story was well underway.

That initial interview, my typing exercise, totaled three full pages, single-spaced. Only one sentence found its way into the final copy. The rest was trash, but it got me going. Hell, even most of the things I shared here never appeared in my final story. 

It was trying, to say the least, but in the immortal words of Master Yoda in Star Wars, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Not unlike Strayed’s sentiments, I think: Don’t talk. Dig.

After all, that fence won’t magically build itself. That coal won’t get itself out of the ground. Nor will angels necessarily arrive to shower you with inspired words.

And fiction writing, I’ve learned, is entirely a different animal altogether. At least in journalism you someplace to begin, a story assignment to fulfill. There is no such thing when you’re just making shit up.

Sure, it can be hard. No day at the coal mines, I’m certain, but definitely not easy.

Thankfully, I’ve seen that fence built, shiny and new, at the end of a long day. While there weren’t any angels, as I recall, I finished a few stories, too, inspired or otherwise. Admittedly, work sucks, even if I do admire those who do it. I much prefer basking in the glow of a finished project.
Sometimes, however, we all need that extra nudge, that reminder to simply dig — this straight white man included.