I’ve strung together many words over the long span of my career as a journalist and, more recently, novelist. It would not be hyperbole to say that several million sentences have appeared in print under my name, though how many specifically would be anyone’s guess.
In truth, there have been few sentences I ever constructed that I reread weeks, months or years later and didn’t cringe at, at least a little. Anyone who takes the craft of writing seriously knows their work can nearly always be improved with one more draft, tighter and more precise prose, more polishing. The problem is that once your sentences appear in a newspaper, magazine or book, they’re out there for better or worse, for all the universe to see and judge, forever, and at that point, there’s not a damn thing you can do to make what you’ve written better, even though you wish you could. It’s why I have always loved building things.
To construct anything of substance requires commitment, precision, and attention to detail. Crafting a novel is no different. But in construction, unlike writing, there is no tinkering after the fact. There’s permanence in the end result. What’s done is done, and only you can discern the flaws in the work–unlike writing, where everyone rightfully is a critic.
My love of working with my hands began long before my love of stringing together sentences. I was about five when my father, a commercial artist-turned-street cop who carved wooden gunstocks in his off-time, began letting me play with his many handsaws, chisels, and files. In grade school, I often doodled sketches of what my own work bench might look like one day, and where each tool would go. In high school, I did well enough academically that my classmates voted me “Most Likely to Succeed”. What none of them knew was that my favorite class was woodshop, where I built what may have been the most rickety, un-level, free-standing bookshelf ever made. I’d like to think my skills have improved since then with much practice and plenty of trial and error.
You might ask, “Well, if the guy enjoys building things so much, why didn’t he do it for a living?” Two reasons, both of which I learned the hard way during brief stints as a teenager toiling on crews installing chain-link fencing and pouring cement driveways. The first lesson is that physical labor is hard work. You bake in the summer and freeze in winter, and every day your body takes a beating. The second reason is that many people who end up hiring you don’t appreciate the grueling demands of the job. They will complain for the slightest reason about the quality of your work and grind you for every nickel. Life is too short; such people are best avoided.
I used to fantasize about spending a summer building a kit cabin somewhere in Colorado, where I grew up. My wife and I would buy a sweet piece of land somewhere high in the mountains and have the kit trucked in. We would sleep in a tent amid the pines while I spent each day constructing our log retreat. She, however, wasn’t crazy about the idea. Neither was my lower back, if I’m being honest about things.. After we moved to beautiful Santa Barbara and found the home of our dreams, the idea faded. Life takes its turns.
I’m currently building a small cottage that will be used as a home gym. In fact, I’m writing this blog post after a day of framing. Part of me feels a bit guilty about that. What I really should be doing these days is finishing editing The Impossible Turn, my eighth Cordell Logan mystery, before turning my attention to the notes I expect to receive next month from my publishers on revisions to Deep Fury, the seventh Logan mystery, which is scheduled for release in late 2024. But when the sun is shining, the birds are singing, my airplane is in the shop, and there are nails to be pounded, I find it impossible to sit inside at my desk all day and tinker with words. I promise I’ll get to the editing. But not until the drywall gets hung.