On the last day of my father’s life, he mowed his yard. It was the hottest day of the year, and he mowed because that grass needed cutting and he wasn’t about to leave it undone. His heart seized with the effort, and my mother saw him, collapsed on the grass, already dead. She’d tried to persuade him to stay inside. “I’ll have supper on the table in just a bit,” she said, but he’d have none of it. He had a yard that needed cutting. He’d finished the front, and he just had the back to do and the time with which to do it. It wouldn’t take much, he told her, and she surrendered. She knew from over thirty years with him that when he had his head set on something, nothing could dissuade him.
I’m sorry that my father died on that day in 1982, but from the greater vantage point that time allows, I see that his passing offers a lesson to anyone who wants to write. I nearly said, “to anyone who wants to be a writer,” but that’s a different thing. To want to be a writer is to crave what little time in the spotlight—and I can assure you it will normally be very little—that one’s successes will offer. To want to write is to have the desire for the pleasure derived from time spent working on one’s craft, no matter how painful or difficult. The person who wants to be a writer is usually impatient for success and the validation it brings. The person who wants to write is in it for the long haul.
My father’s life was one of manual labor. It was a life he chose when he learned to farm from his own father, and it was life he greatly enjoyed. He was eager to get into the fields come spring planting time. He was passionate about the care of his crops through the hot summer months. He was tireless when autumn’s harvests came. During the long winter months, he was studying equipment manuals, reading about new seed varieties, planning next year’s crops, keeping up to date with the market reports. He was a farmer, and farming was always a part of his life. It was his identity.
Now go back and substitute “writer” and “writing” for “farmer” and “farming” in that sentence: “He was a writer, and writing was always part of his life. It was his identity.” My father, you see, was always teaching me something about perseverance, and the love it takes to stick with something no matter how often that something challenges and disappoints you, to know there’s no other way you’d prefer to spend your days.
He knew how work got done. Someone did it. It seems so simple, but such isn’t always the case for people who want to be writers. Those people may spend ungodly stretches of time fearing that their work will never be enough, or whining about how the deck is stacked against them, or feeling despondent because friends are successful. From my father, I learned to go forth with courage, to persist. To plow a field, he divided it into sections of ground called “lands” and he went back and forth over them, turning the earth. Land by land, a field of great size got done. He took the same approach to mowing a yard. A section at a time. He taught me that work was chiefly a matter of putting your head down and seeing only what was in front of you at the time. He taught me that and the faith that it takes to believe that your efforts will ultimately bear fruit.
My father was a farmer. He wanted me to be one, too. I took another path, but I carry him with me always. Each time I sit down to write and the task seems impossible, I imagine his voice coming to me through the years, telling me, as he often did when I complained that I couldn’t loosen a rusted nut, “Can’t never did nothing. Come on now. Get rough with it. That’s it. Do the work.”
So I say it to all of us now. How blessed we are to keep doing the good work.