Everything I needed to know about writing I learned from my Dad’s level

When I was a little girl, Saturdays were my favorite day of the week, because Dad took me to the hardware store. Never a man without a project, Dad and I strolled the aisles and picked out all the uber-cool and necessary items. Back home, he let me watch him build.

Even as an adult, Dad helps me builds projects around our house: corner benches, window seats, entertainment cabinets, wainscoting, and more. I’ve often thought about tackling carpentry projects myself, but I’ve always been afraid his gifts of patience, precision, and measurement didn’t pass down through the genetic pipeline.

Until last week, that is. I gulped hard, then set about transforming a small, unused closet in my son’s room into a book nook, complete with a seat, shelves, and trim. As I worked, I couldn’t help think of how similar building and woodworking are to the craft of writing. So, here for you today are the top ten applicable things I learned:

1) Borrowing ideas from others is a compliment. I found the book nook idea at my favorite DIY blog. I copied some of the ideas, but ultimately, the project quickly became unique to my home and my son’s personality. Application: Don’t be afraid to consider how to tweak popular (even Shakespearean) story lines into your own masterpiece.

2) Sketch out a plan. I drew sketches with all my ideas and at all sorts of angles. This really helped when I took it to the hardware store and explained my ideas to Mr. Friendly-But-Skeptical-of-a-Female-Builder in the blue apron. Application: Plot and outline. And know that girls can build, too.

3) Take time to measure. And measure again. I measured most boards at least three times before cutting them. Even so, I had to take some pieces back to the saw for additional trimming, because of angles I hadn’t anticipated. Application: Research. And research more. You may not need all the research you gather for your story, but it’s better to have too much than not enough. You can’t make a piece of wood longer, after all.

4) The level never lies. My Dad always spends more time leveling than he does nailing and drilling. As a young girl, this seemed like a waste of time. Now, with one (fairly) successful project under my belt, I understand how one unlevel board can ruin the whole project. Application: You can never fact check or edit too much.

5) Shims come in handy. A side board which supported the nook’s seat wasn’t level. I added a shim to the low end to make it right before I drilled the seat plank on. Sitting crooked wouldn’t be much fun. Application: Take time to smooth out and adjust your prose.

6) Sometimes you have to yank out a bent nail. I stink at hammering. Should be the easiest part of a project, right? Not for me. I’m hammer challenged. Inevitably, at least a few of my nails bend, and I’m tempted in frustration to just hammer them in anyway. Sideways. Application: Don’t be sloppy. Take your time.

7) When stuck, ask a master for help. Switch projects for a moment: Last winter I painted my kitchen yellow. Three times. After the first two shades came out neon and lemonish and all wrong, I bawled like a baby knowing I’d have to paint the whole room a third time. I called my Dad. We knocked it out in a couple hours. Application: Read and talk to established authors. They help get you out of writing ruts.

8) Wood putty and spackle are my new best friends. For holes. Dings. Bent nails I hammered in anywayApplication: Edit.

9) Sandpaper makes all the difference. Application: Edit some more.

10) Invest in a good paintbrush. The final touches of a project are when I’m most tempted to take shortcuts. I’m tired of looking at the mess. I just want to get ‘er done. But alas, these are the moments which make a project shine. I found out the hard way that using a crappy paintbrush when applying high gloss paint to cabinetry looks plain awful. Application: Don’t skimp before hitting the send button. Edit again.





What about you?

What ways do you find real-world experiences help you re-frame the writing journey?

What’s your most handy advice? 


19 Replies to “Everything I needed to know about writing I learned from my Dad’s level”

  1. To answer your question: When I write on the basis of a pre-established contract, the demands of that editor and contract dictate everything from the style of prose to the subject matter. In truth, whenever possible I bid on projects that I really want because the subject matter is appealing. When it is a book, on a topic I like, especially if the pay is also respectful then I am really happy about it if I can get that contract and do it. When I create art I always hope to make money from sales of copies of it but the money is almost never to only motivation. For example – I have generated short fiction stories suddenly inspired by an after school chat with my child or years earlier from bed time stories. I wasn’t just thinking ‘how can I make money’ when I came up with it. That being said, I like to get paid the same way that a woman is usually pretty happy if her boyfriend turns out to be marriage material who can and does spend on her or invest in her even though they wanted to be together – not because of the money, but thank God it turns out to be there, know what I mean? When I write art novels or nonfiction books, I’m hoping it will turn out that well and it will sell well enough to actually provide for me and my now nearly adult child.

  2. I love this analogy! I used to go out to eat with a friend and her husband, who was in construction, and he’d often comment about shoddy work in buildings and point out uneven drywall, etc. I always loved to hear him talk about it because it showed he took pride in the work he did himself. I want to have that same pride in my work when I send it off. Now, off I go to pull out some bent nails. Ugh!

  3. Amy, I really enjoyed your story of you and your Dad as it reminds me so much of my husband and me doing a project. He is the handler of tools, marker of boards, driller of holes, but I am the planner, figuring out how the whole thing will come together. We’ve made it last for a ton of years so must be working. I also loved your analogy, especially since I used the same technique last week on my blog post where I talked about my quilting and compared it to my writing. If you’d like to see it, check out http://elainecougler.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/a-pile-of-precious-pages-and-a-quilt/. Happy writing!

  4. I really enjoyed this post, Amy. I love a great metaphor. Your relationship with your dad was obvious and quite touching as well.

  5. We must be related. I could tell you stories about hanging a full length mirror on the back of my bedroom door in which I ignored all the lessons you learned–but I won’t. I love the picture you put in my head that will help me remember the applications.

  6. What a terrifical analogy, miss Amy. I’m married to an engineer and I’m a tad impatient with all the prep work and fine-tuning he uses for our countless projects around the ole ranchola. And until now, I didn’t realize how much of my “building” attitude parallels my writerly mindset too.

    Hoping for images at your site… 😉


  7. Fun analogy, Amy. #7 cracked me up. I once repainted a spare bedroom three times after the paint I envisioned as a beautiful Tuscan yellow turned out first school bus, then mustard then Big-bird yellow. The fourth time, I went with taupe. (:

    P.S. you should post a picture of the finished nook–it sounds lovely!

    1. I since learned (from the kind Sherwin Williams man who mixed mine three times) that yellow is the most difficult shade of paint to determine. Wow. Taupe’s definitely more friendly. 🙂

  8. Amy, I could so relate to your story. My husband and I have rehabbed almost every house we’ve lived in, and I’m now an expert at every power tool known to man. Forget the hammer; I use a nail gun. LOL What a wonderful analogy!!

  9. I am new to the blogging world and I think the best thing I have learned from another blogger is no matter what I write…have the patience to let it “stew” for a day or so and almost every time…I am able to discover more mistakes and in some cases, God leads me to a scripture I hadn’t thought of, etc. Mostly what I’ve learned though…..READ A LOT

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