“Having faith in God did not mean sitting back and doing nothing. It meant believing you would find success if you did your best honestly and energetically.” – Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
It is early March in Pennsylvania – still no sign of spring. My son tells me that his three best friends are coming over to dig a hole.
We live in rural southwestern Pennsylvania on a 12-acre plot that is mostly woods. Under naked poplar trees, the boys break ground. They are 17, juniors in high school, three runners and a soccer player, thin, quiet, smart, and as close as brothers. They don’t tell us much – only that they are digging a hole.
I catch glimpses of them from the double-hung windows that cover the back of our stone and cedar house. While they plunge shovels into hard ground, I slip into our oak-paneled den to write. I hunch over my keyboard like they are hunched over their construction site.
My son comes into the kitchen after the first long day of digging, his black hair tousled, the seat of his pants covered in dirt, a slight grin on his face. I ask him why they are digging. He shrugs. He has always been a builder – Lego, puzzles, Minecraft, forts made of snow, forts made of sticks.
The hole starts without any particular purpose, but, every day they come to dig. They break one of my husband’s old shovels digging through the burnt orange clay and rock. They go to Tractor Supply and come back with a new shovel. They put a red and white bow on it – a gift for my husband. The digging continues.
They dig in the rain, the heat, the snow. They trudge through the garage for tools and Gatorade, leaving clumps of mud like a Hansel and Gretel trail.
Their determination and love for their work is infectious. I’m reminded of the builders in The Pillars of the Earth, an historical novel about a monk and a mason who set out to build the greatest Gothic cathedral in the world. The author, Ken Follett, said writing the book was exhausting. “I knew it had to be a long book. It took at least thirty years to build a cathedral and most took longer because they would run out of money, or be attacked, or invaded. So, the story covers the entire lives of the main characters,” Follett says on his web page.
Cathedrals did take decades – sometimes centuries – to build. Few workers could expect to see a finished cathedral in their lifetime. Being involved in the building or financing of a cathedral meant you had a willingness to be part of a process larger than yourself. It meant you were willing to do the work for the work itself, not because you wanted to boast beside the finished product.
I send the boys’ mothers photos of the ditch and one responds, “They might need a building permit.” We are all glad they have something to do that doesn’t involve the Xbox.
Every few days I pull on my pink and brown Merrell’s, trudge into the woods, peer into the hole. The rectangular-shaped ditch is big enough to hold a casket.
They stand like experienced grave-diggers, shovels in hand at the edge of the hole, and say that they are going to build a fort around the top. They root through the garage for old pieces of wood. They pool their money, drive to Home Depot for building supplies. Someone brings panels of an old garage door that they cut and hinge to create windows that open. Someone else brings wooden slats to put in the bottom of the hole so they don’t have to stand in water. They buy a pump to siphon out the puddles, plywood and a tarp to create a roof.
I ask my son why they are building this. He shrugs again but this time he adds, “we might use it for an airsoft war.”
The hole with the fort on top will become a bunker.
I wish I could work like them. I wish I could see that the joy is in the building, not in needing to know what the final outcome will be. I want to write because I love it – not for external acceptance, not for money, not because someone assigned it. I can’t shake the need for a deadline, an assignment, an editor.
I have dreamed about being a freelance writer – spending my days with words, choosing what I want to write, having the flexibility to work and parent when I want.
But shouldn’t the goal be to get paid, to get published? At what point can I tell people I am working when I am writing? When do I get to say, “I am a writer,” when someone asks what I do?
I want the tenacity of Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams: “If you build it, he will come.”
I want the confidence of Stephen King and James Patterson, both who say they wrote thousands of words before anyone noticed them. They wrote just because they loved to write.
The mantra in the writing world is to “write every day,” but, I struggle if I don’t know the purpose. I’m afraid of wasting time, of putting my heart into words that might never leave my computer. I ask myself why it matters, who will read it, what will it become?
I have designated two hours in the morning for writing. I succumb to distraction. I pay the bills, start a load of laundry, figure out dinner for six, call the vet, check on the sick cat, plunge a toilet, put some Nike T-shirts and capris in my JCPenney cart and look through a list of magazines accepting submissions.
I’m jealous of the boys’ ability to dig without distraction.
I want to learn how to dig the hole with abandon – before I know that it will be a fort. I want to build the cathedral without the promise of sitting in the pews. I want to write because writing it down matters.
Cologne Cathedral, Germany, a UNESCO World Heritage site, attests to the strength and perseverance of the cathedral builders. Begun in 1248, the construction of Cologne Cathedral took place in several stages and was not completed until 1880. Over seven centuries, 632 years, its successive builders were “inspired by the same faith and by a spirit of absolute fidelity to the original plans.”
If words are my bricks, then the book is my cathedral. A skilled bricklayer can lay 4-5 bricks a minute – 240 bricks an hour/1900 bricks a day – numbers that aren’t that far off for a productive writer. I think about a finished book more than I think about the stacking of words, the construction of sentences and paragraphs.
Writing a book may not take centuries, but even the best authors sometimes write for years before seeing results. David Sedaris, a humorist and author who has published nine best-selling books and has contributed at least 40 essays to The New Yorker, says he wrote every day for fifteen years before he published his first book.
Fifteen years. He wrote just because he loved to write.
The boys work with that same abandon. They finish their hideout in less than three weeks. They invite more boys over and have airsoft wars, using the bunker for protection.
The fort is abandoned (for now). Last time I checked, it was flooded with dirty water. I miss the clumps of mud in the garage, the sight of the boys trudging through the yard to retrieve tools, their laughter.
They have all talked about being engineers. When they have that degree will they still want to build? Once they are getting paid and someone is telling them what to do will they still have that fire to create?
The builders of the great cathedrals toiled under horrible conditions, for very little pay. Many masons and stone cutters moved from one construction site to another, getting paid by the day or by the project. Building was often a reflection of faith. In the mid 12th Century, the Catholic Church started “granting indulgences” to those who agreed to build the cathedrals. Masons, stone cutters, and laborers were willing to do the back-breaking work, often for very little pay, in return for a promise that they would be absolved of their sins. Builders were willing to leave their families and do dangerous work because they knew that, someday, the cathedral (from the word cathedra, or bishop’s throne) would be a place of peace and respite for thousands of people.
We have been to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, one of the largest churches in the world. It can hold up to 60,000 people. The seat of Roman Catholicism, St. Peter’s was under construction for more than 100 years when Catholic officials asked the retired Michelangelo to help complete the project. Michelangelo worked tirelessly from age 74 to his death at age 88, supervising work on the basilica and designing the dome that is now part of Rome’s skyline. He never saw the finished project. It is said that he refused to be paid – that he worked to satisfy his own spiritual resolution.
What does it take to become a master builder – of forts, of cathedrals, of words? What does it take to know that the work that you do has value? How do you become a builder who builds for the sake of building?
Recent renovation at Canterbury Cathedral showed that the famous building was constructed on top of the original cathedral – the old becoming a foundation for the new. It was common for foundations to reach 25 feet underground. The building of the foundation was a critical skill. Mistakes could lead to weaknesses in the walls above. The tomb-like foundation of our backyard bunker is precise, rectangular, measured, built to hold four boys – a roof and walls in place above.
There are cracks in my writing foundation, lapses in my apprenticeship. I have avoided working on the frame for a long time. I want to be a master sculptor but I work like an unskilled laborer. Until there is a spine with my name on it, I probably will not claim the title of writer.
I open the Oprah Magazine to an article by author Cheryl Strayed.
“I was terrified – of failure, of writing a book no one would publish or read or love,” she says.
My pity party is halted.
There will not be acceptance from outside until it resonates inside.
Strayed: “What matters isn’t that we attain perfection, but that again and again, with humility and faith, we reach.”
Just like the cathedral builders and the ditch diggers – humility and faith.
My “bunker” will be built word by word, rather than brick by brick.
Slowly, diligently, the process will become my purpose.
Beth Casteel is a mom, grandmother, community volunteer, and Catholic Church organist who writes from rural southwestern Pennsylvania.