Mortise and TenonOver time I have built a few pieces of furniture – a book case here, a table there.  Wood is good and great pleasure is derived from the process of milling rough lumber into useable boards, shaping and joining those boards into something aesthetically pleasing and lasting.  It’s almost creative.  I say almost because everything I’ve built has been a reproduction of someone else’s design.  I’ll leave the creative distinction to the works of genuine masters like Sam Maloof or Gustav Stickley; guys who left truly fresh footprints in the shavings on the floor.

Still, even in a reproduction there is a sense of accomplishment as a project takes shape, certainly in looking at the finished project, but even more so in the making and fitting of the joints.  Decisions must be made as to what type of joint will be best for each element of the piece – which should be purely structural and which can afford a bit of aesthetic flair.  Then it’s down to the business of applying craft to the fit and finish of each.  With proper attention to detail, the resulting whole will remain robust over time and pleasing to the eye .

While I am far from being a master craftsman, I’ve developed sufficient proficiency in milling and joinery to allow me to take on more challenging projects with some confidence.  IMG_0102My earliest pieces appeared to have been built by someone who didn’t know what he was doing, but this is only because they were built by someone who didn’t know what he was doing.  Butt joints and screws and out of square boxes were my trademark.  But as time went on both my tool collection and my ability to use them grew.  I studied the strengths, limitations and applications of different types of joints.  I practiced, failed and improved.  Importantly, I learned that there is a difference between a hobby and a craft.  When approached as a hobby, woodworking can be fun, but expectations surrounding the quality of the finished product should be tempered.  Approached as a craft, working with wood becomes rewarding. Study and practice become requisite steps in the completion of a project, and the finished product reflects that.

There is a strong parallel here that can be applied to the writing of fiction.  Having long approached it as a hobby, my work has been visibly out of square with loose joints and poorly sanded surfaces.  Those with an understanding of the craft might have read some of my past forays into fiction and thought them to be written by someone who didn’t know what he was doing. But that’s only because they were written by someone who didn’t know what he was doing. Creative flair has its place, but that place isn’t in the load bearing corners of a story.

There are fundamentals to effective story telling; firebricks that prevent the writer from burning the whole thing down before the reader warms up to it.  These fundamentals, set apart from any inherent talent a writer may have, must be learned.  Conflict, layered characters, backstory, subtext, pace and story arc. Of late I have immersed myself in studying these elements, the craft of the written story. I am practicing, failing, learning, mindful that there is a difference between hobby and craft.sam-maloof

Before he could break the rules of rocking chair building, Sam Maloof had to learn how a rocking chair works. Grain direction, allowance for seasonal expansion, the correct joint for the job.

I will continue to join both words and boards. In fact there is a bookcase I have been wanting to build, its shelves to be joined to its sides with sliding dovetails. A perfect joint in form and function, one I have yet to master. And there is a book being written. If any good, it will read as one written by someone who has practiced and understands the craft of a well written story. I look forward to seeing its pages bound and resting in a well built bookcase.











41.8 Books

“There are too many dead men and there is too much talk about them” – Raymond Chandler

The average male in the US (and for purposes of this discussion let’s focus on living males) lives about 76 years.  I’m a little over 52 years old so that gives me about 24 more years on this side of the sod.  But given my procrastinatory predilection, let’s say that I don’t get around to dying until I’m 80.  This gives me about 28 years left.

Should this prediction be reasonably accurate, it will mean different things to different folks.  To my health insurance company, based on my medical bills from the past few years, it will mean the odds of them breaking even on me are squat.  To my auto mechanic, based on my repair bills over the last few years, it will mean he should tell his wife “Yes, honey, we can afford that”.  For my wife Laura it should mean that she can go to bed tonight almost 50% certain that the dripping faucet in our bathroom will get repaired before she needs to make my funeral arrangements.  And my kids should regret ever having said they will pay me back.

To me it means that after 52 years, enough bait has been cut and it’s time to fish – to flycast, spear or snag that book out of my muddy waters.

A good average word count for a full length piece of literary fiction is roughly 85,000 words. So let me commit to 2,000 words a day and let’s run the numbers to see what my body of work should look like by the time my body stops working.  On second thought, since even I only believe half the shit I say (and if you have any sense you’ll only believe half of that), let’s knock that down to 500 words a day.  Over the course of a year that gives me 182,500 words, or 2.2 books per year.

Ruh roh!Ruh Roh

Ok, there’s no way I’m going to write 365 days a year,  and there are countless valid reasons why I should be able to avoid devoting a couple of hours per day to knocking out 500 words.  Well, maybe not countless.

Let’s start with the Sabbath.  Right off the top let’s knock this thing down to a six day week.  Beliefs aside, this fool ain’t gonna risk eternal hellfire over a lousy 500 words.

Then, of course, there’s vacation.  I know this isn’t France, but given my seniority in some writer’s guild that I will join as soon as I’m done writing this, I’m entitled to four weeks of vacation per year.

As a nation we set aside ten federal holidays to be with our loved ones, to honor our heroes and heritage, to focus on things far more important than writing 500 words.  These include New Years Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, etc.  You know the list.  While some of these are officially observed only by federal employees, I have read the Federalist Papers, agree with them in principle, and therefore feel obligated to observe all ten.  As a writer I also observe National Library Week and abstain from writing to dedicate my time more fully to reading.

Sick days?  Nobody wants to read the crap I wrote, had I written any, the way I felt last week. I’ll bet I feel that way about ten days a year.

How about funerals.  It would be almost disrespectful for me to frolic with fiction when I should be in deep mourning.  I easily attend twelve funerals a year.  Well ok, it’s more like two, in a bad year, but let’s assume the next twenty eight years are all going to be bad.

And weddings.  Of course I should go to the service and reception, but to fully honor the nuptials let’s agree that wedding days should be more about them and less about me. Again, I easily attend a dozen weddings a year.  I love them.  Ok, I hate weddings and go to two in a bad year.

So there it is.  Writing 500 words a day for 254 days a year would generate 127,000 words, or 1.5 books, 85,000 words in length, per year.  Give me 28 more years and I’ll give you 41.8 books.

Numbers don’t lie, but I do, so let’s spin that bullshit wheel one more time .  I’ll cut what I said in half and you do it again because you have no reason to believe me.  That’s still ten books.  A pretty scary number when you’re starting at zero.

Or a pretty exciting number, infinitely achievable, should I stop fearing it and starting doing it.

The bottom line is, the actual number will be a function of how many words I write on however many days remain for me to enjoy.  And yes, those days will be enjoyed more fully for the writing.  And yes, to the extent the word count remains zero, you might as well already consider me one of those dead men there is too much talk about.

So let the word count begin.

Breaking Trail

If the function of a writer is to write, which it is, I haven’t been very functional lately.  Feast and famine cycles aren’t new to me, but at least over the course of this latest dry spell I enjoyed the company of my son Graham who had been working with me while on his winter break from college.

We were preparing for a snowshoe event coming up in Eagle River.  Breaking trail, cutting and splitting wood for campfires, hauling straw bales for folks to sit on.  Being together in the January northwoods.  IMG_0995It was a joy to have him up here with me, especially in the evenings.  He’s a good cook, a good companion, and as this time together reinforced, a good man.

It’s been a real January in the north woods.  Working off a long list of tasks with a deadline, we allowed the weather to arrange their completion, or at least the time of day when they might be done.  Sometimes breakfast would take a little longer than needed while the temperature was allowed to rise a bit, and the indoor tasks generally took a morning slot, chains to be sharpened, signs to be built.

And then it was a dad and a son and a dog in the woods and they don’t make weather bad enough to spoil that.

The snowbound woods were silent but for snowshoed feet making our way.  One of us stopped now and again to point at some scene as beautiful as another we’d just passed, or to identify a good spot for a trail marker.  Words weren’t needed but sometimes we’d string a couple together as if we were supposed to.  Together we enjoyed the IMG_1008woodland solitude.  The Germans, ever efficient in their vernacular, call it waldeinsamkeit, and with similar efficiency we placed one foot in front of the other leaving marks in both the snow and our memories.  Arlo scoffed altogether at the concept of efficiency and crossed our trail repeatedly, coming from places we may never lay eyes on.

With another set of tasks checked off we gather our chill and our tools and bring them back to the farmhouse for some warmth and a meal.  Out of the woods the words flow more freely.  A recap of the day between mouthfuls and some thoughts on what tomorrow might hold with the weather checked.  An evaluation of what worked and what didn’t with how we were dressed and what might be changed tomorrow.  Glances down at Arlo who will be licking his paws well into the evening.

On one particular evening conversation went well past when the old man typically retired.  The younger was enthusiastic in his want to discuss all things celestial, the physical universe and the confounding notion that it bears an edge.  Time and space and spacetime, God and physics and questions without answers.  A father and son and waldeinsamkeit.  A dog licking its paws.  A different kind of trail was broken that evening, winding unmarked through mysteries and circling back upon itself.  Each of us stopping at different points suggesting that here might be a good spot for a trail marker.  The bed was soft that night.

Then another January morning and a breakfast that took  a little longer than needed.

Plus or Minus

As I write this in the predawn hours it is -29F in Eagle River, WI and +24 in Eagle River, AK.  So the temperature in Eagle River is -3F, plus or minus roughly 27 degrees.  I am in Wisconsin.

From the window I see the smoke from the wood furnace rising perfectly vertical and new pope white against the black morning sky.  Waiting a few hours to stoke the furnace would mean only a negligible increase in temperature and an opportunity missed.  There is something about the early morning sky, in the darkest hours before the dawn, that draws me in.  It dons a mystical aura when the air is very still and very cold.

So while the coffee brews and with wool socks already on my feet, I slip on tall boots and a few layers of fleece.  Arlo is standing by the door looking up at the handle waiting for a gloved hand to do what he can’t, and is the first to bolt out into the cold morning air. IMG_0366_2 He will dash off into the balsams in an attempt to flush out an unsuspecting rabbit, will take care of his morning business and then eventually join me by the woodpile.  He lives for mornings like this, and for any other kind of morning for that matter.

But on cold still mornings like this while he wanders the area with his nose, I like to stand still for a bit and just listen to the absolute nothing that surrounds us.  Every now and then these very cold morning vigils are rewarded by a loud crack from the ice on the creek below me or from a living tree freezing.  Short of that, the clear black morning sky, the same cloudless sky that allowed the temperature to plummet, offers a tapestry of morning planets and constellations that only the earliest of risers witness.

There was a January morning a few years back, similar to this morning in time and temperature, when I noticed Arlo sitting near me in the snow gazing at the stars.  I had never before witnessed a dog doing this and it confirmed for me that we were born of the same exploding star.

But as with that morning, my reverie is broken by the growing pain of sharp cold on my exposed face.  I open the wood furnace door, rake the night coals forward, and charge it with a tier of fresh logs sufficient to get through the day.  Near dusk I will do the same, a bit more generously and with wood more carefully chosen, to ensure a good coal bed in the morning.  Then back inside to a warm meal, an evening read and a resting dog.  And on the eastern horizon constellations will be rising to begin their night path across the sky, knowing that I will greet them in the morning.

Still Standing

Late yesterday afternoon we had occasion to travel for a few hours through the lower mid section of Wisconsin.  In between the small villages and towns stretched rural spans of dairyland.  A strong and strangely southern January wind blew a low foil of snow from fields on the left, across the highway, to fields on the right and the late day sun snuck an angled glare between the field’s crusted surface and the blowing sheet.   The state highway we travelled followed a curved route carved with deference to glacial remnants and the clout of some long ago landowners.   As is often the case along these long rural routes, prosperous and well kept farms were interspersed with those that were less so, and every now and then, like periods in a Faulkner novel, abandoned homesteads appeared.

These places have stories.  farm

My eyes are drawn to these unsigned historical markers as I drive by, but I always settle for a passing glance and the thought “that place has a story.”  What if I were to stop and actually take the steps and time needed to learn that story?

If I did I might learn that the quarter section it sits on was originally claimed and cleared and plowed by somebody named Fredrik or Karl or maybe Ernst.  I might learn that with the exception of the bottomland on the northeast forty, the land was fertile and the harvests  were generally good, God willing.  And that the stone foundation over there was to a smokehouse built under US Grant and used through most of FDR.  I would learn the names of the children and draught horses and the make of the first tractor on the farm.  Which daughter went to the State Normal School and came back to teach.  I would learn that the drought years were bad but the war years were worse, that Johnny didn’t always come marching home.

It might be learned that the GI Bill and opportunities elsewhere pulled the boys away from the farm and that grandpa moved into town to live with Bill and Marie two years after grandma died.  That he sold the farm but couldn’t attend the equipment auction.  That he wasn’t cut out for town life, much less being a burden to his son’s family, and that the reaper took him the first harvest season after he left the farm.

Then again the real story might be different on all counts.  How would I know?  We had places to be and the way that snow was blowing there’s slim chance I would have found the smokehouse.  Even if it had been there in the first place.  What I can say with certainty is that history casts shadows and the house still stands.  And there’s a story in there.

Photo: First Snow, by Swainboat, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Fresh Steel

IMG_0968A glance at the thermometer yesterday morning showed -16F.  It was a good day to continue working in the shop, sharpening and tuning hand tools.  Sharpening plane irons and chisels is therapeutic for a mind like mine.  It asks me to slow down, to reorient my sometimes “squirrel in the road” thought process, to focus.  It is mindfulness practice with really sharp objects.

There is a ritual associated with this sharpening meditation.  The bench is cleared and the workspace prepared with the means to the end.  A coarse diamond stone is placed on the left should it be needed and two Japanese water stones in steps to the right; one to sharpen, one to hone.  A bottle of water to lubricate the stones, a rag to clean the tools between steps, and a scrap board for tuning are placed close at hand.

Then the tools themselves are chosen, planes first, chisels last.  Dust, memory and a careful drag of the thumb indicate which need sharpening and a swipe on the test board is used for triage.  The sharpest of the lot is the first to go through the process.  Bringing a tool from “pretty sharp” to “scary sharp” sets the standard.

The plane is then disassembled by removing its lever cap and iron assembly, leaving the frog exposed for inspection and cleaning.  That this finely crafted tool has a key component labeled a frog is a thinly veiled attempt to break my concentration – to which I sometimes succumb.  With the iron in hand it’s time to put steel to stone.

Both visual and tactile senses are brought fully to bear as the stone is stroked by the iron, carefully maintaining the angle to be sharpened,  watching the slurry darken to indicate progress.  A wipe with a rag and a feel with the thumb reveals a slight burr on the back of the iron.  Fresh steel has been exposed; the essence of sharpening.  A few strokes on the fine stone, front and back, to hone the sharpened edge completes the process.

The plane is then reassembled and tuned; the tuning board presiding as judge.  The iron’s exposure and bias are adjusted and readjusted until the plane sings across the board and offers up a uniformly thin shaving, a gossamer slice of grain.  An inward smile, a nod of satisfaction accompanies the placement of the plane back in its till for safe keeping.

And so with the others.

And so while the wind factored chill into already frigid air, I found refuge in a task.  Protected by walls and a sense of purpose, a day passed warmed by the mindful engagement of stone and steel.

The (Upper) Case for Style

It’s revealing of me that when I received my copy of The Elements of Style from Amazon the other day, I all but ignored the other books in the box.  My first copy – the one that got me through college – is probably still in my possession, but it is such a small book that it can easily get lost in the stacks unless it’s kept near at hand.  As can, at least in my case, its contents.

For those not familiar with it, The Elements of Style, in fewer than 100 pages, provides a “…summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.”  While it is primarily a reference book, a rope to reach for when you find yourself caught between a rock and independent clauses, it is much more.  Now more than ever, in this time when our modes of communication all but command us to ignore grammar and style (think texting and 140 characters), The Elements of Style offers a clear path back from the edge.  And I mean clear.  When Strunk says,

“Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”,

he does not qualify the instruction with, LOL.  The rules of usage and principles of composition are presented clearly, in the active, affirmative voice.  This confidence is not arrogance.  It is, as Charles Osgood notes in the Afterword, born of sympathy for the reader.

Grammar and style are to the written word what civility and courtesy are to the verbal exchange.  The case can be made that our norms for communicating are simply adapting to our changing technologies,  but as a middle-aged curmudgeon in training, I still find expressions of good style and form refreshing, and I’ll cling to The Elements of Style for just a few decades more, thank you.