writing roots

I grew up in a village in southwest Wisconsin that has exactly one bank, one gas station, and one school. It also has its own vibe: The roads meander through hollows and across ridges, creeks snake down the valleys and settle into the soggy bottoms of the Wisconsin River, and the people work. It was formative to be around people who woke early, drank a cup of coffee, and then spent the day doing whatever it was they did—they built, grew, fixed, milked, taught, drove, manufactured—until the day was done. And then they’d do it again the next day. And then the next.

A meat-and-potatoes attitude towards work was in the air.

In my younger days, I dabbled in the type of jobs that were around. I milked cows and labored in construction. Once upon a time, in what now seems like a previous life, I worked as an auto mechanic. I remember once counting that I had a cut, scrape, or small burn on nine out of my ten fingers. Anybody who’s worked as a mechanic knows this is not uncommon. To this day, I can still recognize “working hands” on their proud owners.

One of the byproducts of all this work is that people mastered their craft. When you work hard on something for several years, you get pretty damn good at it. I didn’t stick with any of these jobs long enough to develop mastery—I got a few college degrees and went into academia instead—but I have the memories of working side-by-side with people who did.

When I went to grad school, I thought academia was a new game with new rules. I was only partially right.

There’s one moment that stuck with me. It occurred in what must have been my first year in graduate school. I sat in my advisor’s office. Our chairs faced each other. Our knees nearly touched because, I assume, my advisor was in some sort of dare to see how many bookshelves and filing cabinets he could fit into his small office. I proudly handed him a freshly-printed sheet of paper with a table of means from a study we’d been running in the lab. Rather than a quick approving nod, there was silence. His eyes were fixed on this piece of paper for 15 minutes. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t move. He thought and I sat. It’s kind of awkward sitting next to another person in silence; each minute feels like an eternity. But I swear you could feel his brainpower pressing against the paper. Then, finally, he scrawled a few notes onto the margins of the paper and then sent me off to think about it.

There were two things I learned that day. First, his penmanship was horrible. Second, he gleaned an insight that I didn’t.

I don’t remember that moment because it was something new, I remember it because it was so darned familiar to me. It was reminiscent of fetching boards for a master carpenter. This familiarity was comforting to me. Thinking and writing was now my work. And I knew how to work.

Now I spend most of my days at a computer. I put words together on a screen and fuss over them until I’m satisfied. I get to take walks around a beautiful college campus. I don’t milk cows. I don’t roll hay. If I swing a hammer, it’s because I am doing a small task around my home. My once-nicked-up fingers now type all day and I have yet to receive my first work-related injury. On the surface, it’s about as far from my upbringings as possible.

Even though my past and present seem like different worlds, there was no better preparation for academia than the upbringing I had. I learned more about writing by watching farmers in their fields than I did in any college-level writing class I’ve taken. Roll up your sleeves. Get your hands dirty. Your skills will be better than yesterday but take years to accrue. Stick with it. Whether it’s constructing homes or sturdy declarative sentences, valuable skills are hard-earned.

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