“Stack the wood too tightly and it won’t dry; stack it too evenly and the whole pile comes tumbling down. It is an art and a science and maybe even a religion.” from, Simply Appalachian
Snow falls. I bend down, grasp the piece of split lodgepole pine, and stand up. Walk a few feet and drop it onto the growing stack of firewood. I adjust the piece slightly with my mittened hands and the wood settles into place loosely between two others.
The wood finds its way. I go back to the delivered pile dumped haphazardly by our home, and pick up two this time. I stack them. Return. The task continues. My mind is clear. The work satisfies. I cannot stop, even when my back tires, even if inside the house my laptop sits idle. This is the work that gives me tangible rewards.
Why not write like I’m stacking wood? That’s easier said than done. Where’s the stack I can point to at the end of the day, and say with pride, “See? See how this woodpile holds together without tumbling down?
Words lie in a jumbled heap. How do I pick the right word? Is it jumbled, messy, chaotic, or free-form? Is it a heap, pile or muddle? When I stack wood, I don’t rummage around for the right piece. I pick up what’s in front of me. All the wood must find its way to the stack. Later? I might want to fuss a little bit more. Not now.
I’m writing a story. The words are already there in my mind, waiting to be stacked and ordered in a way that’s loose enough to allow the story to breathe, yet tight enough to stay together and retain its shape.
Reach into the mound. Be thankful for the delivery. Start stacking. Keep writing. Don’t worry too much. Let the words find their way. Give them a nudge. Add the second row. Don’t stop. Add a third row.
Pause to stretch and breathe. Note the feel of each word. Is it rough to the touch? Does this one have a knot? Is the grain clear? Take time to inhale, breathe it in, and acknowledge the fragrance. Take the word, “stack.” It’s a muscular word, taut and sinewed. The scent is sweat.
The story is finding its pacing, like a round of wood with concentric growth rings. In the happiest moments, the plot overflows with all that’s needed for life- water, sun and shelter. The rings are wide. The pace is a slow southern, languid drawl. Tension builds. Drought and storms strike. The rings shrink. The pace accelerates, until my fingers falter on the keyboard. I’ve struck a knot. I don’t know where to go next. There’s no choice. Keep writing. Walk over to the pile. Pick up that split piece of wood with a firm grip. Drop it down. Watch it settle. Adjust slightly. Repeat.
Years ago, I learned some invaluable tips on free writing, from a book by Natalie Goldberg called, Wild Mind, Living the Writer’s Life. Her rules for getting a draft down, or brainstorming ideas, or simply moving beyond writer’s block remind me a little of stacking wood, which I’ll add in parentheses:
- Keep your hand moving. (Keep stacking.)
- Lose control. (Let the wood decide where it fits. Yes, there’s order and there’s letting go)
- Be specific. (Call the wood by its name. Know that it’s lodgepole pine).
- Don’t think. (Go with the first piece you pick up, your first intuition).
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. (A stack of wood is like a first draft, rough yet finding its order, too).
- You are free to write the worst junk in the world. (It’s not a contest, this stacking of wood).
- Go for the jugular. (No piece of wood is unstackable or off limits. Don’t cherry pick the easy ones).
Write like you’re stacking firewood. Words are fuel. They can be dangerous, powerful, life-altering, and world-changing. Don’t shy away. Find the story you have to tell. Use words for good, for a heat that warms a cold world and reminds us of what binds rather than divides.
Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. (saying from a zen master)