Writing Lessons From House-Building & From Marriage

My wife and I recently found ourselves in a bit of a predicament. Our seemingly simple mission was to sync the buttons in a new car to our garage door opener. She sat in the car just outside, reading and calling out the instructions, while I got on a mini-stepladder to access the opener’s motor unit, hanging over the car bay. The operation had to be performed in a sequence, with some precise timing. Our first problem: I didn’t have any glasses on or with me. Next, due to my sketchy hearing, I kept mishearing her instructions (alas, it seems my lifelong love of well-amplified music has caught up with me). After about five failed attempts we agreed on a new tactic. Once she’d reinitiated the sequence, my wife (who did have her glasses) was to jump out of the car and hurry to the ladder to complete the operation. I was rightfully relegated to holding the mini-stepladder.

Reader, this did not go well. With a seconds-long window before the opener light would stop blinking, signaling another thwarted attempt, my wife rushed to beat this ludicrous technological deadline. She made it to the ladder, took two steps up, lost her balance, grabbed my sweatshirt in both of her fists, and promptly pulled us both over.

Thankfully, no injuries came of the spectacle. Indeed, we laughed until we were both crying. As we wiped our eyes and brushed ourselves off, I quipped, “Thank goodness we built this place when we did. I mean, here I am, can’t see or hear. And here you are—what—a whole two steps up and damn-near swooning?” She then reminded me of the time (while we were building our house together) that I stood on her shoulders while she balanced on a length of 4” x 4” lumber propped against the last scaffolding plank remaining on our roof, so that I could nail the final bit of siding on the back dormer. I say stood, meaning we were both lying with the pitch, reaching for the top of our fairly steep—and very slippery—roof. Regardless, it’s a feat we could never repeat. Potential hilarity aside, nor would we try.

The garage door incident brought two writing lessons to mind, both of which I hope you’ll find helpful, or maybe even inspiring. Both are born of newfound perspective. The first has to do with the similarities I now see in the daunting projects of building a house and writing a novel. I’ll wrap up with the second, which is a bit more abstract, having to do with parallels between the writing life and life partnerships.

Our House and Writing

I like to say that humility is the new confidence. Hence, I hate to get all braggy-pants here, but I remain pretty damn proud of our house and the fact that we built it ourselves. It’s been over twenty years, and at this point I’m sure I’ll consider it among my finest achievements for the rest of my days. Upon reflection now, I can see how similar it makes me feel to finishing each of my trilogies.

This is not to suggest that everyone should attempt to build their own house; I understand how uncommon it is to even have the opportunity to undertake such a project. Ours was a unique circumstance: we lived in Illinois but still considered Michigan our home; worked within an industry and business community that supplied many of the necessary materials for the job; and had the motive to study and master the newest and best products, applications, and techniques in residential construction. Also, we are childless, and were able to sell our house in IL and move into a smaller condo before we started building. Having said all of that, if you ever do have the opportunity—even to work in oversight with professionals—I think most would find enduring fulfilment such a project.

Back when I was in the biz, I dealt with large residential tract builders who could complete a house—from sills on cured concrete to market-ready—in twelve weeks. I also know authors who write and publish one to two books a year. Those are fine outcomes, and even admirable. I can only address what my wife and I sought in our house project, and what I’ve sought in my writing journey.

With those caveats in place, here are a few of the similarities I now see between the building of our house and the writing of my trilogies.

Our passion can lead the way: For my wife and I, much of our drive to attempt to build this house came from our passion for the Arts & Crafts aesthetic. We had already lived in two A&C houses. We’d collected dozens of related books, had attended several A&C conferences, and had toured at least a dozen houses designed by architects like the Green Brothers and Frank Llyod Wright. For us, Arts & Crafts represents more than an architectural style—it describes a way of life. One that we continue to aspire to (simplicity, beauty found in functionality, connection to the natural world).

What we didn’t know about building a house was offset by our excitement to incorporate elements and design features from the movement. Our trepidation over the unknown was overcome by our love. That same love buoyed us and shone the way through the project. The same goes for writing. When I started, all I really knew about writing a novel was that I loved to read them, loved the way they made me think and feel.

If you’re passionate about the written word and how it affects you, your love can lead the way and carry you through.

We learn best by doing, so it’s best to start doing: We did quite a bit of research in the months before breaking ground on our house project, but it never felt like enough. This was before mobile devices with internet access, so I recall keeping stacks of big building manuals in the van for use at the jobsite, and referring to them often. Not to mention poring over scores of brochures and product installation sheets. I recall seeking instructional videos online in our Illinois office on Friday afternoon in order to take handwritten notes for impending tasks (this preceded YouTube, too).

In the end, there were hundreds of intricate and complex operations that we had never before attempted. Some of them scared the crap out of me. By necessity, we adopted a policy of taking the project one step at a time, day-by-day. And yes, we made mistakes. Dozens of them—some more major than others. But you know, there were no mistakes that couldn’t be overcome with remedial repair (revision?) over time. There were others that simply have not mattered; a few that have simply become a part of the “charm” of the place—making it uniquely ours.

The same goes for writing a novel. Researching, planning, and outlining a story are all very good practices, well worth the time you invest in them. But they will never be substitutes for actually writing your story. We all know about the merits of shitty first drafts. You won’t have a shitty first draft without actually starting and writing. This is a principle we must embrace for every new novel we undertake.

Starting on a sound foundation can support a lifetime of storytelling: Years before we started building, we searched for just the right site. Part of the perfection we sought involved the land being “high and dry,” on sandy, well-drained soil. Living in an area surrounded by vast expanses of low, wet acreage, and a nearby subterranean shelf of clay, I remain grateful for our finicky foresight. We were told we could build on a slab or even on piers, but instead we chose to do a continuous poured footing under 42” frost-walls.

I’ve already mentioned the Arts & Crafts architecture we aspired to. One of the defining aspects of the style, and of the plans we developed, is the employment of wood timbers–often left visible–in the framing. Bottom line: this house is built like a fortress sitting on a bunker. It’s designed to endure. When I lie in bed at night, listening to the wind howling off of Lake Michigan, I am grateful for all of it.

For me, writing my trilogies has been similar. I have nothing but respect for shorter works, or work that is intended to be timely and ephemeral, or a lighthearted diversion. Those are not what I sought. I’ve always wanted to write stories with the potential to stand the test of time, that I could be proud of for the rest of my days. I started by immersing myself in my chosen genre, and grounding my work in authentic historical background. I learned the lay of the land, and chose my story’s setting and tropes with care. It’s given me a solid foundation on which I’m confident many stories can be solidly built.

There really shouldn’t be any hurry: Dang, it’s a hectic world these days, isn’t it? It seems we’re all in a huge hurry, most every hour of every day. Undertaking a project like building a house or writing a novel can never be quick nor easy. They’re not things that easily fit into the typical whirlwind of a modern lifestyle. Besides the day-to-day aspect, modern society seems to love a good deadline. But how many of the deadlines we accept as necessary are actually artificial, even when they’re self-imposed? Or maybe especially then.

I’ll never forget starting our roof. We’d ordered a special type of cedar shingle. We willingly waited for the mill to accumulate a higher grade than was readily available. We also chose to have them pressure treated, which extended the wait. We followed industry recommendations for the use of a breather-mesh underlayment and felt interwoven with each course. At the time, the nailing guns designed for wood roofing voided the warranty on our chosen roofing (this is no longer true). So we decided to hand-nail it. We started on an August weekend in 1999, in temperatures near 100°F. We were still working full time in Illinois and this was weekend work. Still, our goal was to have the roof, exterior siding, and insulation all done before winter set in.

I’ll never forget the big snowflakes that drifted down as we drove the final nails on the cap at the peak. Although we’d yet to begin the siding or the insulation, I also remember the sense of accomplishment, the feeling that winter could bring it. And the realization that none of the rest really mattered, that everything underneath would remain dry. The work ahead could be done in its rightful time. We celebrated our first family Christmas in the house not that year, as we’d initially imagined, but the next, in 2000—almost eighteen months after breaking ground. As I write this, twenty-three years later, looking out at that same snow-covered roof, I’m glad we put in the time and effort to get it right.

I’ll also never forget frantically submitting the manuscript for book one of my first trilogy to agents. I first sent it out in 2010-11, and the feedback I received persistently told me that the work wasn’t ready yet. I had imagined, throughout my early writing journey, that I would be a published author by the time I hit 50. Instead, in my 50th year I began work on the manuscript that became The Severing Son—my debut, published eleven years later.

That first trilogy? It’s still dry under-roof; the work it needs can be in its rightful time. Reflecting on my debut, I’m glad that I put in the time and effort to get it right.

Make Mine a Lifestyle, Please

I originally thought the conclusion I’d reach with this essay would be about finding our way to patience. It’s still a big part of what I want to convey. The hurly-burly life I mentioned earlier is one we all get sucked into living, at least some of the time. Sitting in my cozy house on a wintry day, thinking back on my writing journey, I can definitively say that surrendering to patience—which hasn’t always been easy or felt natural—has been essential to what I now consider my finest achievements.

From time to time I encounter young writers seeking advice, and the one thing I sense in them that I wish I could more effectively dissuade them from is impatience. I suppose the same would go for anyone seeking advice on building their own home. Let go of the urge to impose deadlines, and to hurry though to some artificial ideal of a finish line. I recently added a storage bench to our built-in dining room window-seat. It’s something that my wife envisioned and requested in 1999. We love it, and perhaps we should’ve had it long before now. My point is, the house is still a work-in-progress. As is my writing journey.

I said that I would wrap up with another lesson born of our garage-door-programming incident. At a glance, an observer might take the point of the story to be: Boy, they’re getting old! I see it differently. I see the laughter we shared being a well-earned reward. I see how—in spite of our shortcomings, some born of age—much of the bounty we continue to reap and share is born of experience, and hard-earned wisdom.

When I list my finest achievements, my marriage always tops the list. Ever since my wife and I became friends in college, there has been nothing I’ve wanted more than to grow old with her. I’m living it every day. It’s a beautiful achievement that continues to unfold with each day, each year, that passes.

Why can’t our writing journey be like that? Why should we measure them by publication, or by sales data, or by reviews or awards? Aren’t those more like milestone along the way? Why can’t we think of our writing life as continuously unfolding, offering us new rewards and ever-accumulating satisfaction?

Here’s to every well-earned laugh. And to our hard-earned wisdom. May you be warm and cozy as you look back, and ahead, at the beautiful, unfolding achievement that is your writing journey.

How’s your hearing, WU Rockers? Still good? How about your balance? Your patience? Have you had a good laugh lately? Are you willing to embrace that your finest achievement may be one that continues to unfold before you?

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