Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 8th, 2011

“Come home from land, with stone in hand”

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This week I’m reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life, the classic handbook of rural living that inspired the back to the land movement. While I don’t intend to relocate to a farm anytime soon, it’s hard not to be inspired by the Nearings’ combination of pluck, idealism, and practicality, which all but cry out to be applied to one’s own life. One of the book’s most appealing sections, for instance, details the building of a stone house, made mostly of stones that the Nearings gradually collected from their own fields, from walks in the woods, and from the roadside, keeping an eye out at all times for “well-shaped rocks.” By so doing, they were simply following the advice of Thomas Tusser, the Tudor poet and author of Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie, who wrote:

Where stones be too manie, annoieng thy land,
Make servant come home with a stone in his hand.
By daily so dooing, have plentie yee shall,
Both handsome for paving and good for a wall.

Reading these words, it struck me that this isn’t so different from what a writer does. Writers are gleaners, picking up material wherever they find it, often in the course of doing something else. I’ve spoken before of Lawrence Block’s image of the novelist as a songbird, weaving bits of ribbon and cloth into its nest “for color, to tighten things up, and because they caught my eye and seemed to belong there.” In a way, the Nearings’ example is even better, because it encompasses both discipline and serendipity: a writer often finds well-shaped rocks by chance, but only if he was looking for them in the first place. And the habit of looking for material at all times, even in casual reading or conversation, is one of the most important skills that a writer can develop.

Another necessary habit, of course, is saving and remembering what one finds. When the Nearings were building their house, they put up a series of signs on the building site, with labels like “Corner,” “Floor,” and “Chimney,” where they’d set appropriate stones as they found them. Similarly, a writer needs at least a permanent text file or notebook page for any project he might be working on at the time, where he can jot down new ideas or bits of material as they arise. For what I hope will my third novel after The Icon Thief and City of Exiles, for example, I’ve reserved a page in my journal for a better part of a year now, writing down fragmentary thoughts whenever they come to mind. The ideas aren’t in any order; it’s just a heap of stones. But whenever I go back and check it, I’m often surprised by what I find there.

And what about ideas that don’t fit into your current project? These stones deserve to be saved, too. When I was in college, I kept a commonplace book of quotes and ideas, and although I’ve since fallen out of the habit, I still try to keep notes as best I can. (This blog, especially its section on Quotes of the Day, has come to serve much of the same purpose.) And you never know what will later come in handy. A stone that doesn’t seem useful now may end up, to borrow one of the subtlest images in the Bible, as the keystone for a project you haven’t even imagined. The trick is to always keep your eyes open, in libraries and in life. As the Nearings write: “Stone gathering became a real preoccupation on our walks or drives, and it was a rare day when we did not come back ‘with stone in hand.” And that should be a writer’s goal as well.

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2011 at 9:44 am

Quote of the Day

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[M]oney is a commodity to be bought or not to be bought, a luxury in which we may either indulge or stint ourselves, like any other. And there are many luxuries that we may legitimately prefer to it, such as a grateful conscience, a country life, or the woman of our inclination.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Men and Books

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2011 at 7:54 am

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