Priming the Pump

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.

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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

27 thoughts on “Priming the Pump

  1. Thanks, Rev. I might note that your dad’s truck probably had 260 air…2 windows down, 60 miles an hour.

    Your story reminded me of the song “Desert Pete” by the Kingston Trio, which will be an earworm for me during the rest of this day, which I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I did your post:

    • How did I not know this Kingston Trio song? I thought I had all their albums. Even heard them in concert a few time. Just hearing the intro brought back memories.

    • Thanks Joe. I’ll give it a listen. I’m trying to write a song right now, but can’t make it happen. My mind doesn’t work that way, probably because I try and cram in waaaay too much info. Have a great day!

  2. As always, Rev, your posts are gems. Wonderful stories and lessons to be learned or reminded of. No excuses today. I will move forward on the new book.

  3. Wonderful advice, Rev. There are so many analogies that could be made with “priming the pump” and writing. When I saw the title of your post, and before I read the post, I thought of “priming the pump” and all the years of learning the craft, finding your voice, finding an audience, etc. etc.

    Joe’s link to the Kingston Trio and “Desert Pete” would make great background music while this post is being read.

    “Priming the Pump” should definitely be the title of a chapter in craft books, where aspiring writers are warned of the long-term preparations for a writing career and are instructed in the daily preparations for getting into the story before writing.

    Great analogy. Great advice.

    Have a great weekend. May the priming work, and the water run sweet and cold.

    • Thank you sir. I hoped that by burying a little advice in a story (read analogy here) that is might also help to prime the pump. Hope your weekend is productive.

  4. Your post is great water to prime that pump. Sometimes when I sit down to write I ‘got something’. I know where I’m going with a scene. Other times I ‘got nothin’ but if I’ll just start typing — it can be anything even a grocery list— an idea or a direction for my characters to take will come. Every time. Thanks for making me itchy to get back to my story after two weeks of editing another one.

  5. Superb, Rev. And so true. One day last week I’d had a miserable night’s sleep. The next morning, with only a couple hours of rest, I was uninspired to say the least. But I plopped the Macbook in my lap anyway. Every morning I edit the previous day’s work before moving forward, but I didn’t think I’d get far that day.

    Hours flew by.

    That day I reached my highest word count of the week. Wouldn’t be true if I hadn’t primed that pump. 🙂

    When you mentioned the water, I could relate. Each week my husband trudges to a natural spring — a pipe sticking out the side of a mountain — to fill up jugs. It’s the clearest, most delicious water ever. He’s not thrilled about the trip in sub-degree temps, sleet, or snow. Regardless, every Sunday morning, off he goes.

    • That’s exactly what I was talking about. Glad it worked for you, and I’m with your husband. Natural live water tastes sweet and wonderful.

      Write on!

  6. Luv yer writin’, Rev. I can so hear your voice. This piece reminds me of my dad’s 50 Merc pickup (flathead, of course) that we called The Farm Box. There was a team effort to getting it going. My dad sat behind the wheel with his finger on the starter button while me and my brother would prime the carb with a can of gas. We always kept a wet gunny sack nearby to smother the flames from the odd backfire.

  7. 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 great, Mr. Wortham. A keeper.

  8. This story will prime my own creative pump, Rev. Reading it, I felt like I was there. Reflecting on it, I’m transported back to my own childhood, on the north side of Seattle, helping my dad siphon gas out of our old aqua Kingswood (or similar) station wagon, to use to clean oil off our hands after lubricating a bicycle chain. See, you indeed primed my own pump. Thanks for the story and the insight this morning!

  9. You should never drink from a rarely used well because it’s often filled with bacteria which can make you very sick or kill you. Add that to this metaphor as you will.

    I have a well with an electric pump. Priming it is not fun and very, very wet and just plain brutal in the winter.

    And, yes, I have always read a day or two back in my work to prime my own creative pump and get myself back into my work.

  10. Love your story, Rev. I was right there with you in the splendor of un-airconditioned rides in 90 degree sunshine. Ah, the memories.

    Priming the pump is such great advice. Wasn’t it Louis L’Amour who said “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” (He was lucky – he had a faucet.) Thanks for the great advice.

  11. IIRR, L. Sprague de Camp’s “Science Fiction Handbook” contained something like this advice: As you near the end of a days (writing) stint, stop before you type that last idea; leave it as the next day’s start, to build momentum and get back in the rhythm of writing.

    Sometimes I get the next day’s start as I wake. And, yes, I sometimes edit the previous day’s output. Or I work on another project. Or go down to the botanic gardens near me and take a walk. Or I start another novel based on a new, nifty idea. Soon I’ll have enough first chapters for “Look! A Squirrel,” my anthology of starting pages for books I never finished.

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