Not Exactly Terrible

March 19, 2013 § 12 Comments


I passed all of Friday and most of the weekend in the throes of exertion, which is really just a fancy way of saying I spent most of those three days outside, working. I dropped a bunch of balsams, limbed them, and skidded them to the log landing by the sawmill. I dropped a couple of black cherry that were rotting from the inside out, limbed them, and skidded them to the log landing by the sawmill, where I proceeded to buck them up before we all laid into them with splitting mauls. I did some other stuff, too, but honestly, the details are sort of hazy. It was a busy few days.

I make my living as a writer, which means I’m either one of the luckiest fools ever to walk this good green Earth, or a scam artist of enormous skill and cunning. Probably it’s a little of each. I’ve got no complaints; I love my work and am wickedly grateful for it. Which is a good thing, because I’m entirely unqualified to do much of anything else.

Still, there’s something a bit unsettling to me in getting paid to write. I don’t want to say that writing is easy, because it’s not, really. But the truth is, it’s a pretty damn privileged way to make a buck: Here I sit, toasty warm and clad in my long johns, hot cup of coffee close at hand, listening to good music, and watching the snow fall through the window above my desk. True, I’m not getting paid to write in this space, but then, this is only a fraction of the day’s work, and the remainder will be the paying kind.

Here’s the deal: I am close enough to enough people who make their living from the land to know what truly hard work looks like. And this here ain’t it. Last week, I sat up with Jimmy and Sara in their sugarhouse until midnight, at which point I bailed because, you know, I was a little tired and had to work the next day. Jimmy boiled until 2:30 a.m., slept two-and-a-half hours, and then went to the barn for morning chores. There will be many more nights like that for him over the next few weeks, and that’s just the way it is. He’s grateful for it, too, because if he’s not boiling all night, it’s because the sap’s not running, and if the sap’s not running, he’s not making money. If he’s not milking, he’s not making money. If he’s not splitting firewood, he’s not making money. So yeah, writing’s not exactly easy, and it’s not exactly making us rich, but compared to what some of my friends and neighbors do to make their way in this world, it’s a big ol’ piece of cake. With ice cream.

In some regards, I think this is what I find so compelling about working our little piece of land: It feels to me like an antidote to my chosen profession. On Sunday evening, having put in three full days in the woods and around the home place, I dropped into that sweet sense of bone-deep fatigue, like sinking into a hot bath. I had a pile of sawlogs and a nice collection of split firewood to show for my efforts, and all felt right and just in my world, as if I’d taken no more than I’d given, and perhaps even a bit less.

Writing offers a certain type of satisfaction, no question about it, and I suspect if I were to give it up entirely, I’d come to miss it right quick. From a strictly pragmatic perspective, I am fortunate that my income is not entirely dependent on my body, with its myriad vulnerabilities. And I’d be lying if I said there’s not a certain satisfaction inherent to this work. There is. There very much is.

But the truth is, the moments I feel most at home in my body, mind, and possibly spirit almost never happen at my desk. They almost never happen at the end of a sentence, or a paragraph, or even a book. Instead, they happen in the woods, or out on the pasture, or even just walking across the barnyard on my way to feed the cows. They happen at the end of a long day spent with my hands in the dirt, or stacking bales on the wagon behind Martha’s tractor.

I’m not sure what this says about my writing; perhaps it suggests I’m not putting enough into it. That seems like a very real possibility. Or maybe it means nothing more than that I’m lucky to have paying work I enjoy, and nonpaying work I love. 

Which, come to think of it, is not exactly a terrible way to go through life.

§ 12 Responses to Not Exactly Terrible

  • Jennifer Fisk says:

    I love your writing. Your words create a picture that is so great.

  • Sid Raisch says:

    Love what you do. Do what you love. It’s not just a t-shirt slogan. I have asked large roomfuls of people what they would do if time and money were no object. It is only a few – maybe 2-3% that say they’d continue to do what they already do (maybe after a short break to waste some of the time and money). We’re among the lucky to have pursued a passion and figure out how to be paid for it. It’s really more about figuring out how to live within those means.

  • Kim says:

    Beautiful. Thanks.

    I requested your new book and my local library has ordered it. Can’t wait.

  • You have created this: a lifestyle which encompasses the true meaning of the duality of mind/body. Your physical work feeds the well for the writing work, and both kinds of work feeds your family. As you have avoided the trap of being owned by the need for excessive consumer goods so you get to live this elegantly sustainable life. I say bravo to you guys for pulling this off in an increasingly senseless world. Keep sharing those ideas, and sending out the small pond ripples that continue to radiate outward from your little farmstead. That is the value of this blog medium I think. Here I have found a level of discourse not found in popular entertainment. Have I introduced you to my friend Cecilia? She and her husband John have a sustainable farm in Illinois. She writes and photographs every day in this wonderful blog:

  • Plow truck broke in the middle of what may be the last big snow storm. Can’t get anyone to come get the truck until the plow comes off. Can”t get the plow off… But being outside trying was also a great excuse to be the weather and then when I was wet enough I came in to the warm fire…it’s good to participate in our own lives.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Ah, yes, the old plow-truck’s-broken-and-I-can’t-get-it-fixed-without-getting-the-plow-off-but-I-can’t-get-the-plow-off-because-the-truck’s-broken dilemma. Someone could probably write a pretty decent country and western song about it. Good to hear from you, Janet. Best of luck with the truck.

  • Allison Evans says:

    He is pushing my buttons today. Between the last post about Penny, who can’t bear to look at a screen, and now this about his love of physical labor its superiority to writing, I’m feeling tired of him. It is certainly my own resistance, as I have never in my life lived remotely the way he lives and am feeling a little less-than for it.

    Sometimes he says things that bring him into sharp focus — the comment about all their clothes being thrift store, how his suit didn’t fit and he used (I can’t remember what) something that wasn’t a belt as a belt, how they bathe once per month whether they need it or not (was he joking?) — and I realize, “If I saw him on the street, I would roll my eyes or feel sorry for him.” Yep. I’m that shallow.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Yeah, well, probably if I saw him on the street, I’d feel sorry for him, too.

      But then, I’d be wrong.

  • Ann says:

    I am becoming a Ben Hewitt junkie. Can writers have groupies? Most of my close friends check your blog, too, as they are tired of me insisting on reading them just a couple sentences…

  • […] feel as if I am defined by this career choice. I like it. At times, I might love it. But as I have mentioned before, it is not the primary source point of my contentment. It is not impossible for me to imagine […]

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