I’ve always been someone who’s lived in two worlds, and perhaps that’s the definition of a writer. In high school, I was as interested in fishing and carpentry as I was in reading books. When I was a junior, I was seriously considering one of three major career fields: astronomy, cabinet/furniture making or journalism/literature. In college, I could never choose between a focus on literature or creative writing. While these two fields are closely related, in the world of academe, there are some major differences. So I completed the requirements for both. For my master’s degree, I focused on creative writing—poetry. For my Ph.D., I concentrated on American literature. When I moved into my working class neighborhood, I got along well with my next door neighbor, a master carpenter, who is generous with his knowledge and helps me as I do repairs and projects. It’s not that he has to tell me everything, as I am a competent (casual) carpenter, rather he lends the wisdom of experience and expertise. I’ll help him out with work on his truck, for he doesn’t know much about auto mechanics (and I do) in return for his hanging doors or other work. We collaborated on reroofing both of our houses ten years ago. I had probably lived next door to him for 2-3 years before he asked “man, what do you do?” “College English professor” was probably not the first thing he expected. Same with the folks across the street, who like my ’66 Ford pickup and have come over now and then when they see the hood up or the truck up on jackstands and me pulling the front suspension apart.
Every year, after I finish my spring classes, I seem to fall into the same pattern. While I’ve jonesed all year to have time to write, once my grades are submitted and I have some time open, I’m focused on doing the most physical, mechanical, non-academic sorts of things possible. I dive into a project on my truck. I rip planks of walnut and begin fitting together a cradle for my neice’s new baby. I build a flag box out of mahogany for my late father-in-law’s burial flag. I throw my cast net for mullet.
I once thought that maybe I was sliding towards the non-thinking side of the scale as an antidote for too much cerebral work—a healthy dose of carpentry to counteract too much modernist American poetry scholarship, replacing worn bushings on the pickup to balance the work of developing assignments and syllabi. Over the years, however, I’ve learned that there are really many different sorts of intelligence and that, for me at least, a balance between those types of intelligence are important to my work.
There’s something important about the mechanical/spatial sort of intelligence. And it’s different from the logical-intellectual sort of intelligence. When I took the ASVAB in high school, the results said I’m supposed to be an Army truck mechanic. I guess they weren’t too far from accurate. If you’re not a mechanical type, take your car to a good mechanic when you have a vexing problem and see if you can follow his or her thinking. Or if you’re trying to learn an instrument, watch how your teacher accomplishes the same skills with which you’re struggling. A good literature professor can bring a poem or story or novel to life and it’s amazing to watch those mental gymnastics make obvious what was there, seemingly hidden, all along.
Okay, so maybe this is all an excuse for why the early weeks of this blog were so spare. When I finished my summer classes and found that I’d been awarded a Rapid Returns grant, I was elated. And I began tearing the front suspension off a parts truck I’d purchased cheap so I could put disk brakes on my 66 pickup. For days, I’d come in, drenched in sweat, wearing my stained t-shirts and shorts, hands covered in grease and feel guilty about not writing. I’d trim the trees in the back yard, carry big branches on my shoulder, live in the world of loam and sawdust and come inside to shower, dirty and sweaty and guilty about not writing. As always happens, eventually, I would wake and have my coffee and feel that all I wanted to do was write, to work out the images, symbols, characters, settings rolling through my head. Some people say that some of that stuff needs to “percolate” until one is ready to write, but for me, there’s some necessary balance between the physical-mechanical and the creative-intellectual. If I emphasize one thing, I starve the other. I sometimes envy my daughter her cello playing, for it combines the physical elements of her fingers on the fingerboard, her hand on the bow and all the purely mechanical essential elements of getting sounds from the instrument along with the musicality and expression and artistry which is also required. She has it all in one package. I pick up my guitar and strum or pick a little sometimes, but that’s not my main thing. Similarly, I envy my fellow Rapid Returns artists who get busy with their hands and heads at the same time as they get dirty with clay and paint and sweat on stage.
Yesterday, I wrote 1000 words for a novel I’m working on and rearranged the scenes in it. My protagonist is a pilot . . . and a mechanic.