More than once when I was a kid, my Old Man loaded me up into our 1956 Ford pickup and headed for the river bottoms on what seemed to be the hottest days of the year. The short drive was miserable as the Northeast Texas the sun beat down so heavy you could feel it on your skin. That truck had no air conditioning, and the radio worked only after the tubes warmed up, usually just as we got where we were going.
Left arm hanging out the open window, he commented on the crops, the heat, and a mix of hot summer days, and frozen winter nights, while this kid in a Boy’s Regular haircut wanted nothing more than to go back and sit under the water cooler at the house.
He followed the same route down dirt roads under a cloudless sky between fields of cotton and corn, with no particular reason in mind other than to get out of the house. He drove slow, sometimes thinking about lord knows what. Other times memories poured out in a torrent of descriptions about how those bottoms looked when he and his family lived on a dirt-floored sharecropper’s cabin during the Great Depression.
By the time we reached the woods where we inevitably wound up, I was a listless lump half-hanging out the open passenger window. That was our destination all along, a massive red oak sitting at the corner of a cotton field where years earlier my grandaddy cooled and watered his team of mules on hot days just like those.
He killed the engine and metal popped as it cooled. He opened his door and the hinges popped. “Let’s get a drink of water.”
I knew the drill. “It’s too hot, and I don’t feel like it. Can we go back now?”
“You’ll feel like it when the water comes up.”
“Let’s just go.” I came up with a list of excuses not to get out in the heat and prime that old hand pump that had been there for decades. “I want to go back to the house and read. I want to get something to eat. I want to build with my Lego blocks. (Yeah, they had them back then.) I want to watch The Dating Game that comes on in a little while. I want to take a nap, Grandpa needs me to wet the straw on the water cooler, how about we go to the show….”
“Nope. Get out.”
It was useless to argue. We detrucked and waded through the heat and humidity to the iron pump perched on a black pipe sunk deep in the ground. He took the lid off a 55-gallon barrel of water only a couple of feet away and leaned it against the side. The shimmering surface reached nearly to the top and reflected blue sky shining through the leaves above.
“Good.” He tilted his straw hat back and nodded. “Looks like somebody filled the barrel the last time they were here.” It was the neighborly thing to do. “Go to pumping and I’ll dip.”
Sweat running down the sides of my face, I worked the handle up and down. He filled the dipper over and over and poured the contents it into the top to prime the pump. Half a minute later, water gurgled in the pipe and gushed from the spout and splashed on the leaves at my feet.
He rinsed the dipper, filled it from the fresh stream, and handed it to me. “You did the work. You get the first drink.”
Y’all, the water that came up from deep underground was sheer bliss. Gin-clear, cold and sweet, it was a tonic that changed my outlook on the day and it happened the same way every single time we went out there. Though I resisted the drive, heat, and work, the reward was something I recall today as absolute glory.
Why’d I tell you this story?
Because we sometimes find other things to keep us from writing. Life gets in the way. We have to push through and prime that writing pump. It doesn’t take much, just putting your fingers on the keyboard helps.
There are exercises to get started. One recommendation is to read what you wrote the day before (that’s the barrel of water analogy), and edit that. Simply getting back into the story is the way to reprime your mental pump. There are times when we just don’t feel like writing, but we have to keep at it.
If there isn’t a foundation to help launch that day’s work, type something. The lyrics to a song, what you might be thinking about (it doesn’t have to be a polished draft, this post started with a memory), or throw something out there, and once the creative pump’s primed, you’ll find the story flows like water.
We’re all in the woods when we start a story, or novel. The secret is finding a trail, and there are many winding through the forest. Follow it to see where it leads. It might take you somewhere you don’t expect. That’s good. Let your subconscious take you there.
Sometimes other trails intersect, and one looks better than the other. Take it and see where it goes. They might split, converge, lead uphill, but sooner or later, one will lead to a stream, or that hand pump in the woods, and a stream of words will follow for another session.
Until next time, stay primed and keep at it. There’ll be a payoff at the end.