How Writing is Like a Snowblower


I mentioned the snowblower last time. Well, the snow we were warned about hit yesterday and today and will likely continue through at least some of the night. About a foot and half by my estimate; I have no idea what the official measure is. It was, to state the obvious, a lot.

Time for the snowblower. Now, here’s where it gets tricky. I had an electric model snowblower for the first couple of years in NY. I was, frankly, kidding myself. It was not up to the task most of the time. On a day like to today, the poor thing would have squeaked and hid in the garage. Rather the way I felt too, but things to do, schedules to keep. I had already read the manual and knew the basic operation. Also, many Southern summers wrestling (almost literally at times) with a classic Big Wheel Yazoo Mower taught me the basics of working with a small gasoline engine. I wasn’t too worried.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know how to operate a snowblower. I didn’t grow up with these things. In other words, a snowblower, despite some similarities, is not a Yazoo Big Wheel Mower.

I was in full on learner mode. And this wasn’t anything like a minor training snow, maybe five-six inches or so. This was well over a foot with drifts twice that high. Then there’s the snowplows on their regular rounds which leave a berm of ice and snow across the start of your driveway, and add another foot to the drift height plus the complication of ice in its most immovable form. In short, this was a challenge.

Blank canvas of snow considered as a blank page. You start. Things are going okay, only now where you were throwing the snow is where you need to clear next. You’d fix it in the rewrite except you’re clear on what the change needs to be so you do it now, and correct your mistake on the fly. At this distance from the curb you need to throw the snow this way, at another, that way. Are you throwing it high enough so it doesn’t just avalanche back down? Are you throwing it too high and hitting the side of the house? Adjust, find the sweet spot.

Put the words in. Take the words out, rearrange. Try to get the snow where you want it. Adjust on the fly, don’t let yourself get blogged down. Piece too high too long too deep? Take it in slices until you get what you want. Be flexible, but persistent.

In the end you have a clear driveway. Or a story. Depends on what you’re doing, but it’s all, every bit of it, process.

Yeah, one might say, but the next time you’ll know what to do. You’ll have the snowblower thing worked out.

Next time the snow will be different. So will the words and the story.

Process is how and what we learn. Not rules. Not procedures. Process.

Winter Wonderland



I was starting this post with something that sounded—even to me—like whining. Then a cat jumped onto my desk and rather than biting my hand until I petted him (which is his usual MO), he immediately hopped down into my lap and started purring. Hard to get a good whine going when you’re filled with the background hum of the universe. Or a purr, which is pretty much the same thing. So what if I am now battery powered. I’m still here and there’s still work to do.

It’s possible I mentioned this before, but we live on the north side of a river gorge and our back yard is pretty spectacular. The front yard, by contrast, is a forty-five degree slope no more than about seventy five feet wide and eight feet deep down to the sidewalk and street. Yet that’s where the deer have been showing up to feed. There were two last night, a mother and yearling digging through the snow for something they apparently found tasty. We watched them from our front window, no more than a few feet away. They leave the herb garden around back alone, so I don’t mind. Deer gotta eat, especially in winter. I do give them points for knowing there’s no hunting allowed within the city limits. Squirrels and rabbits show up as well, so the area around our house stays pretty busy.

I know these posts about me are pretty boring—don’t deny it—but only temporary, I promise. When I’ve gotten myself together a little better I’ll be looking at some more interesting topics. That shouldn’t be too hard.




It has been snowing off and on in central NY for most of the month, but usually just a light dusting or at most 2-3 inches. Which is honestly weird to a guy like me, who lived most of his life in Mississippi. Not that it never snows there, but it’s more of an occasion, and is more likely to happen in March or April than December. And 2-3 inches? That’s a blizzard. That’s an “OMG we’re all gonna DIE!” emergency, and people will hit the stores to clear out everything they might possibly need since they’re clearly going to be snowed in for a month and we had, I think, one snow plow (I saw it, I swear) that was hardly ever used and not much salt, though maybe some grit for the bridges….You get the idea. It was a Big Deal. Here it’s hardly worth mentioning. Now I did live four years in north Alabama not too far from the Tennessee line. It snowed there, at least one good one (4-5 inches) every winter. The first time I put on my brakes and slid right through a stop sign was probably the precise moment I lost my fascination with snow.

Last night we got some real snow. Not a blizzard, but several inches which I will need to attack with the snow shovel later this morning. The irony is that I ordered a snow blower but its arrival might get delayed because of, you guessed it, snow. Still, it is pretty. Even so, after a while with the snow shovel I likely won’t be so enamored. And I did learn one lesson from my time in Alabama.

Studded snow tires. I’m as ready as I can be.



I’m learning about snow. In Mississippi, snow was a fleeting acquaintance at most. In all my childhood I can only remember two really significant snows, that is, accumulations great enough to scrape together a half-way decent snowman. One weird winter we had the local equivalent of a blizzard. Nine inches. Us kids had a ball, though I don’t remember the grownups being too keen on it.

So far this January it has snowed more here in NY than it did in the last five years in Mississippi. Yet snow is different here. In MS the snow was damper and tended to stick to itself. Easy to make snowballs and snowmen on the rare occasions when there was enough of it. Here in central NY there’s plenty, only it’s mostly what I think is referred to as “powder.” Very light and fluffy. Doesn’t stick together worth a darn, or at all, really. Good for shoveling. Good, apparently, for skiing, since there are several ski resorts in the area that were really bummed at the mild December. Not enough snow then. Mother Nature’s making up for it now. I am learning how to shovel snow. I can’t say it’s a skill I had ever aspired to, but it’s part of the deal. Fortunately, the snow is light and fluffy. It’s not that hard to move.

Another odd thing: when small animals make tracks, the snow is compressed in the middle and pushed up on the outside. When it partially melts, the pushed up area melts last, leaving these almost perfectly round “snownuts” along the animal’s path. They look like a trail of frosted doughnuts, just left there on the ground. Doubt they would taste as good, though.

The Emperor in Shadow proceeds. I have a long way to go, but I still think I can finish in time. I’m still in the section which I refer to usually as the “churning” section. Plot elements are being created, characters introduced, and the writing itself shows how they all fit together. Eventually. For the moment, it churns. Soon the pace will pick up when, well, I won’t say when I figure it all out, because that’s not quite how it works. Ray Bradbury is alleged to have said, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” That makes sense to me, but as for the actual day to day writing part, I say rather that the story triggers some sort of self-organization principle which is one of the keynotes of life in general. Life wants to happen, and so does story. For a book to live, it has to do something similar. At those times I feel more like a photojournalist than a writer, just trying to record the life as it happens. In this case, it just happens to be a novel.

If it’s not alive, well, there’s nothing to record. Just words. Like empty holes in the snow where maybe a living thing should have been.


Let it Snow…Within Reason

At the last writer’s group we got another assignment, but several people had to leave early and there wasn’t time to finish it, so we essentially got the challenge with a week to finish. So what would have been a piece of flash fiction grew into a 3300 word story that I wrote yesterday. I may want to do something else with this one, once I get the tweaks tweaked and the bugs debugged.  Working title is “Have a Good Day,” with a nod to Jerome Bixby. If you don’t get the reference, clearly you haven’t watched enough of the old Twilight Zone tv series. You’re also probably an infant. Continue reading