When I need to mentally travel from Point A to Point B, I sit down and think hard. I’ll draw it out on paper like this:
1. Steal the underpants. 2. Convert them to face masks. 3. Profit.
When I need to go from Point I’ll Never Have Another Good Idea to Point It’s 4 a.m. And I Can’t Stop Writing, the process is different. I suspect that I am involved somehow, but I don’t feel involved. I discovered years ago that my mind is more agile when it’s AWOL.
This is true: If I deliberately attempt to think of a good idea for a book, I’ll fail (“Why not build little houses for snails?”). But if I drive alone to Minnesota and stare at the dotted lines for 10 hours, my brain makes connections among things I’ve both forgotten and remember sharply (“Duh, snails already have houses…”).
For this sort of work, the first hour or two of driving is worthless. Time is real and passes slowly. When I finally let that go, however, it’s like falling asleep, going into a trance or being hypnotized. I can drive for four hours and barely notice.
I use familiar music as the backdrop. Nothing challenging or new. If I really want to trance out, I put on Modest Mouse’s album “The Moon and Antarctica.” I once listened to that album four times in a row on a trip.
I can hear the “tsk tsks” from where you are sitting. Yet, I’ve never had a car wreck when I do this. My lizard-esque midbrain is still in control of the steering wheel and foot pedals. But the frontal lobe is lost.
Oh, did I mention that I don’t do drugs (other than beer, and not while driving)?
So I’m in the car on a trip to Minnesota in November to talk to a woodworking guild there. I’m going to build a chair for an audience. It’s no big deal because I’ve built this chair 20 times. So instead I think about my earlier idea for a series of books on vernacular chairs – one book for each culture.
Gawd, that was a wrong idea. But my mind drifts to what I like about these chairs. No ornament. You work with what you have. Simple joints. Few tools.
Soon I slip into a trance. I don’t remember what music was playing this time. I’m going to guess it was Harry Smith’s “American Anthology of Folk Music.” Every song in that collection is well worn like a river pebble for me. And some songs seem designed to induce a trance. Listen to “Present Joys” or “Rocky Road” by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers five times in a row and tell me you haven’t seen the other side.
By the time I get to Minneapolis I have suffocated then squished my initial idea for the book. Oh look, I have arrived early. And I need new boots. So I try to shake off the drive, find a shoe store and spend some time thinking about footwear and pronation instead.
With the boot problem licked, I walk across the street to get some lunch, still in a bit of a fog from the road. Reluctantly, I order a beer with my porketta sandwich. I hate drinking in the middle of the day because I always feel like crap for hours after. But the restaurant has a beer I’ve always wanted to try.
As I chew, my brain offers up a book idea. The book is not about stick chairs and how they are different from culture to culture. Instead, it’s about stick chairs and how they are similar from culture to culture, century to century. It doesn’t matter if you’re British, German or Slavic. This tradition belongs to all of us. Call it “The Universal Book of Stick Chairs” maybe?
I finish the beer, and pay the bill. It was a tasty beer, but my body now has to pay the tab. I head to my hotel room and lie down. I curl up, fully clothed.
This, I know, is the second paragraph of the story. It’s better than the first paragraph, but it’s missing something and is making excuses for the first paragraph.
Lucky for me I can lose myself for the next two days in building a chair and answering questions about it from the audience. Then I have a long drive home to Kentucky. Maybe the answer will become clear then.
— Christopher Schwarz
Read other posts from the “Making Book” series here.