The Part of It You Don't See
By Daniel Perry
If you’ve been reading my dispatches over the last month, you might have inferred that making a go of it as a writer is hard. Bending reality, memory, knowledge and experience into believable fiction, being original, selling and promoting your work, getting published at all—none of these things are easy.
By comparison, though, I just spent a whole weekend doing cement with my stepdad, which is also pretty hard: smashing out a leaky walkway I share with my neighbour, removing the dirt, cleaning the edges, grading with a shovel, pouring gravel, laying down a drain and a tile and then pouring concrete and later, prettier cement over the top. We did a stretch of about 25 feet, which was supposed to be about six inches wide.
My stepdad knows what he’s doing so he was mainly running the trowel. I barely tried it myself, but to the list of things I know and could write, I can add this, now: you work concrete gently in little pats until it feels like jelly, getting out all the air bubbles so it dries solidly with no holes in the middle.
Deploying his expertise there, however, left me mixing the whole time. The job wasn’t supposed to be big—not nearly big enough to rent a mixer, for example—but the thing about concrete is, when you smash out the old stuff, you don’t know how far the cracks will spread or how hollow it is under the surface. The trench we wound up with was two, sometimes four times as wide as the one we’d imagined when we’d first picked up our hammers. (Another thing I learned: you want nice, clean cliffs where the cement breaks, not flakes or slopes, otherwise it won’t bond worth a you-know-what.)
If you’re waiting for this post to pivot to something about writing, you’re probably expecting it about now, so here you go: I’m talking about craft. It’s a bit easy to make the comparison, but it does fit; when I’m editing I tear away wishy-washy sentences, pay attention to my diction and read the sentences out loud, patting them into that jelly-like cement and bonding to what I’ve put there already, one heavy broken bucketful at a time. (The buckets break because really, the only way to get the already sticking bits at the bottom out is to slam them against a hard surface.)
Mixing cement on a weekend in July is awful. In addition to the merciless afternoon sun, you’ve got the product’s noxious dust to contend with. The stick you stir it with blisters your hands, so you put on your gloves, but then your gloves get soaked so you take them off again. You grab bag after 30-kilogram bag of mix, tear it open and try to control the weight well enough to pour it in to the bucket of water, over and over again, until you find yourself just standing with your hands on the top of the next bag and the rest of your muscles refusing to engage, physically rejecting your demand to lift that weight again. Your wrists and back hurt, you get lime burns on your skin, and after enough time bending or squatting to mix, your obliques painfully remind you that they exist. Even your jaw aches from clenching while you strain all your other muscles to stir the hardening goop as fast as you can, not too wet and not too dry, because you only get to stop once that hole is filled.
In the end, we left the final layer unfinished; two days in a row, we quit not because we were done but because it had gotten too dark. What’s there now is solid, though, with a drain and a pipe firmly in place, and when you dump a bucket of water down one end it flows smoothly out the other—plus, the water seems to stay out of my basement, which was of course the ultimate goal.
That metaphor was working pretty well until I mentioned an actual purpose. Writing fiction can’t always offer that. The why of it gets lost pretty quickly, though, because craft is about attention to detail, the way Raymond Carver talked about knowing one of his stories was finished when he went through it and put in a bunch of commas, only to go through it once more and take them all out again.
What you’re left with is like the walkway I’ll have before long, just as soon as I can talk my stepdad into coming over again—and not before my back’s stopped hurting. But the mixing is the labour-intensive part, hours of the same heavy, repetitive work, and that’s why I chose to write about the topics I did over these last few weeks.
Cement work, like writing, is probably easier—not easy, but easier—if you do it regularly, and whether I’m talking about my walkway or a piece of writing that reads right and looks sharp in its jacket, it’s just the end result that’s visible. The mixing is the part of it you don’t usually see.
Thank you, Open Book, for inviting me to tell you how I do it.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Daniel Perry’s first short fiction collection, Hamburger, was published in 2016. His stories have been short-listed for the Carter V. Cooper Prize and appeared in publications in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and the Czech Republic. He has lived in Toronto since 2006. Nobody Looks That Young Here, a collection of linked stories, is his second book.