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.
26 thoughts on “Making Book Part 2: The Moon & Antarctica”
Ha! You wouldn’t believe all of the resolutions to issues and problems I discover on my drives from Missouri to New Jersey. My brain works best when left alone. It does a great job all on its own.
Nice review of your process – I clearly need better music – I like your description of how hard it is to force an idea to appear – Best
I zone out on car trips. I’ve gone from Boston to Baltimore and DC so many times, I really don’t remember anything from each trip. Or how I got there.
After listening to one album over and over on the drive down, I spent two days at the Enoch Pratt Library and National Archives researching William Zantzinger and Hattie Carroll. Itches sometimes must be scratched.
Thank for the recommendation, downloaded the albums. I have to spend 4 hours driving tomorrow. We will see what random thoughts I have.
Bob, how did you download? I have not discovered secret so far.
So if I understand the point of the story, all stick chairs are similar from culture to culture, and snail houses are similar from snail culture to snail cultural, thus stick chairs are in essence human’s metaphorical shells?
That’s a bingo
Olav Hauge – Conch
You build a house for your soul,
and wander proudly
with the house on your back,
like a snail.
When danger is near,
you crawl inside
and are safe
behind your hard
And when you are no more,
the house will
to your soul’s beauty.
And the sea of your loneliness
will sing deep
It’s funny how much this runs parallel to what I tell my MBA students on the first day of class, right down to the reference to the underpants gnomes. I’ve seen a few students over the years who try to “dream big” to the detriment of actually learning the material they’re paying to learn. I tell them to focus on learning what they can from their classes (even the classes that are more boring than mine), doing well in whatever day job they have, otherwise going about their daily lives, and then writing down whatever ideas arise along the way. Hopefully, they’ll learn along the way how to figure out which ideas can (or should) be implemented. They might even look back and see that their “big” ideas were silly, and their “little” ideas were the best ones.
That was a nice read.
We travel a mighty rocky road. Some rockier than others.
For me it’s, Kelly Harrell & The Virginia String Band – My name is John Johanna
I believe it was a Surly beer. We can’t get that here no way no how.
I had a friend/teacher who had a mobile business. He did two round trips across the USA each year. Plus, he thought nothing of driving 1000 miles to teach one weekend, drive back home, and drive back out the following weekend to teach at the same location. His truck had 450,000 miles before he passed (only preventative maintenance he did was oil changes at 3,000 miles and whatever else the manual said to do; he had to swap out the original motor at 350K miles). He talked about the same trance like state. I mention this because he wrote a monthly article on the back page of a good sized magazine. Though I didn’t ask him, I suspect a lot of the ideas came from these long road trips as the articles were excellent each month and very insightful. I took a lot of classes from him so it was kind of fun to listen and try and guess what might be the next monthly article as he was noodling on it.
I know neither where, or how long, you had to drive to get the idea to write these blogs, but I’m really enjoying it !
When you get done with moon and antarctica remember It’s a long drive for someone with nothing to think about…You don’t want to build nothing out of something. Woodworkers can be such sad sappy suckers. But we will all be dead before this ship goes down.
That song ” a life of arctic sounds” by modest mouse might be the most appropriate for a drive like that.
Remember, Schwarz is a sneaky teacher. He’s got us talking about the music of Modest Mouse but there is a larger, subtler point is about writing and woodworking as well. He’s not saying anything completely new here. Poet Gary Snyder in his writing classes used to advice: “Don’t try to say anything new. Everything worth saying has already been said. Say what you want to say in a way that is fresh to the ears of your generation.” [Quote is a guess from memory.]
Schwarz’s bigger lesson for me is about authenticity. Why is it so wonderful to read this blog? It’s really not about the music, and the topic, long boring drives should not be captivating reading. But it’s so damn authentic you feel like you are in the car with him. When I look at the furniture he builds I think the same thing, you might like it or not like it, agree or not, but the overriding feeling is that this is the real deal, these words, these pieces, are authentic.
That’s my takeaway and what I am going to try and work on.
I’ve been wondering when a thong facemask would appear… a little help for your underpants mask thing. Just did a search on thong facemask, it’s been done, but I think the niche is still open.
Driving up the river has to be John Hartford.
It is called highway hypnosis and is a well known condition. And from a purely creative / inventive point of view the it is also well known that the best ideas come when the brain disconnects, like in the shower or during a nap. Check out Jonah Lehrer’s book called ‘Imagine, How Creativity Works’.
This reminds me of something I try to live by, “Never try to be clever.” You’re either going to be clever in a situation or you won’t (even if you still find a solution), but when you make a deliberate effort to be clever, you’re all but guaranteed to be stupid.
Do any readers have tips on how to buy/find/listen to Harry Smith’s American Anthology of Folk Music? I have been searching online for about 30-60 minutes with no luck. I would be more interested in the original than in the 1999-2001 modernized version, I think. I can play some of the songs on my pc, but can’t get onto phone.
The best way to purchase it is to buy the Smithsonian issue from the 1990s on CD. It’s fairly inexpensive and available. Discogs is a great place to buy used music.
Getting it on vinyl can be an adventure.
Thank you for the lead, and now I have discovered Discogs as well! I have ordered. Really appreciate the intro to a new world.
Discogs gets a lot of my money.
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