My grandfather was a builder. Self taught, he came home after a grim year in a WWII German prison camp, took a few architecture classes on the G.I. bill, and began building houses that still stand all over Winn parish. He could make anything out of nothing in particular, and as a child of the Great Depression, he had grown up tough, gruff, and unbelievably resourceful.
I still have the peashooter he carved for me from scrap lumber. Most mornings, my coffee cup rests on the table he made from odd cuts of Louisiana pine. Once, when he fell from a tree stand in the dense woods of North Louisiana, he managed to piece together a crutch from fallen branches and staggered nearly a mile with a broken leg and a handmade crutch to his parked truck. And though I have forgotten some of the details of his funeral, I distinctly remember this: a bearded man even my grandmother struggled to place shook her hand profusely, saying over and over, “He built our house stout. ”
When I was a kid, my grandfather built our first real house, too. My sisters and I played in hills of scraps for months—piles of sawdust, wedges and squares of cut wood. Best of all was the huge hunk of discarded concrete, shaped as if a giant ice cream scooper had ladled a vanilla rock out of fresh slab and rolled it under a sweet gum tree that grew alone, raggedy and twisty, somehow a survivor of the dozer that cleared the path for our gravel road. I loved that ugly rock and scraggly tree.
No one but me had any desire to sit in the Louisiana sun under a mostly branchless tree and read LM Montgomery books and write stories. And because my desire was so odd, so unlike what my sisters wanted to do, I sought a space of my own, a quiet, strange and solitary space where I could unabashedly keep company with the characters and stories in my books and journals. I had read enough to know how witches and frogs and velveteen rabbits had all been loved into beauty and reality, and I loved that concrete block and tree into an importance that no one looking at it from the road would ever have imagined.
In what may be his most famous poem, “Digging,” Seamus Heaney honors the way his father and grandfather built their lives in the soil, digging turf, “stooping in rhythm” (line 8), “nicking and slicing neatly” (line 22), and planting potatoes like craftsman and artists. Heaney admits that he has “no spade to follow men like them” but offers this alternative: “between my finger and my thumb/ the squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it” (lines 28-31). While Heaney’s family worked in the realm of the tangible, crafting something solid and palpable from land, writers can sometimes feel left out and invisible—like a girl sitting on an old rock under an old tree, making something that no one can really touch or see.
Perhaps, part of being both human and an artist (in whatever context or medium we work within) means longing for spaces and communities to which we belong in particular and authenticating ways. And while writers often experience this sort of community in beautiful, brief oasis moments at conferences and writing residencies, we don’t get to stay in those places. We go home to the sweet gum tree and the old rock, often missing feeling known and significantly part of a unified group, or starving for the experience of a firm handshake and an acknowledgement that we have built something “stout.”
I don’t know that there are any clear answers on how to find and build writerly communities in the miles and times between those meetings and moments. But ever my grandfather’s girl, I believe in honoring whatever resource the space I live in offers. After all, writers build whole worlds from the slightest scrap of sound and image. Part of living in any space or community means learning to live in the long distances between gatherings and validation. Perhaps in learning to honor the space I reside in, in making the most of the raggedy rock and tree, that space can become more than anyone looking in from a distance might imagine it could be.