In Praise of Doing Actual Shit

Sometimes, in my weaker moments, it strikes me as a good idea to avoid doing actual shit.

To clarify, some terminology and context:

By “doing actual shit,” I mean doing something out in the world – splitting wood, playing the banjo, moving my friend’s girlfriend’s mattress and box spring out the window of a third-story garret, trying to build a bobsled run on the heavily wooded, very steep ridgeline we happen to live beneath  – as opposed to doing something in my head or on my computer.

I understand that people will resist this definition; “Inventing names for orphaned orcs is actual shit!” they will shout. And I get it. I’m sympathetic to this argument – after all, I write fantasy – but one of the pleasures of having a blog is in defining your own terms, and I’m sticking with my definition. For the purposes of this post, “actual shit” is not writing, or tweeting, or plotting, or revising, or counting your friends on facebook and trying to figure out how you came to know this one dude who’s wearing the full walrus costume in all his photos.

The reason it’s tempting to avoid doing actual shit is not that I don’t like doing actual shit, but that my job as a writer is to do things in my head or on my computer. The devious thinking runs as follows: for every mile I bike, for every hour I spend learning about edible mushrooms (but not actually eating them because those little fuckers can kill you), for every afternoon I go swimming in the pond with my son, I’ve failed to write a certain number of words. And I’m supposed to be writing words. That’s why the nice people at Tor pay me.

So, given all this, it seemed stupid to bring home a three-year-old rescue dog, a treeing coonhound with a huge scar across his back and a nick out of one ear. In fact, left to my own devices, I would have tallied up the costs – taking him for runs, taking him to the vet, putting out dinner for him, cleaning up the dog hair – converted the accumulated time into words not written (several hundred thousand, by my calculation), and decided to leave him at the shelter. One of the many wonderful things about my wife, however, is that she does not leave me to my own devices. And so we have the hound.

I like the hound for all the normal reasons that people like dogs. More than that, however, the hound has reminded me of something crucial that I’m always in danger of forgetting: Failing to do actual shit can turn a person into a shitty writer. The widest lexicon, most supple syntactical control, and the most inventive imagination can’t save a novelist from a lack of actual shit done.

Take the hound. I grew up with dogs, but I’d forgotten that quiet clicking of claws on the floor that brings movement and life to an otherwise empty house. I’d forgotten the way the soft flesh of a dog’s nose quivers when it half-sniffs, and the clink of a collar against a water bowl. I’d forgotten that pungent smell when you nuzzle close and realize your dog just ate a steaming pile of fox shit. Dogs don’t figure prominently in my books, but when they do appear, those moments will be richer and more nuanced for having a hound in my house.

And the thing is, you never know what you might need when you’re writing a book, or how the actual shit you’ve done on a given day (or month or year) might bring an otherwise generic scene into sharp focus.

Take, for instance, this little bit of description from J.V. Jones’s Cavern of Black Ice:

“Raif looked over the windblown flats of the badlands. Panes of ice already lay thick over melt ponds. In the flattened colt grass beneath Raif’s feet hoarfrost grew silently and insidiously as mold on second-day bread.”

Think what these lines might have been:

“Raif looked over the windblown flats of the badlands. Ice already slicked the ponds, and frost grew on the grass beneath Raif’s feet.”

There’s nothing wrong with this modified description, but compared with the original it seems anemic, attenuated. And here’s the thing, while it might be possible to Google your way into something like original (Image search: frost. Oh! Hoarfrost. Ok. Now, what are those little boggy pond things you see on the tundra called? Google “pondy bog”…), the process would be excruciating and the result less than ideal. Clearly, Jones has seen moldy bread, has enough first-hand experience with it that, when it came time to describe the hoarfrost here, her mind reached (a little inside joke, for those who know the book) for the bread image immediately. At the time, however, I suspect she wasn’t thinking, “Thank god I forgot this bread in the way, way back of the cupboard. This is really going to kick my writing up a notch.” I don’t know Jones (though I wish I did), but I suspect she was thinking something like what I would be thinking: “Well, fuck.”

And there’s just no way to know what actual shit might come in handy when writing a book: raking the leaves, sharpening knives, scrubbing out the tub, shooting cans of Budweiser with a pellet gun and then, when they rupture, racing to the cans and drinking the beer as it fountains forth in a frothy spray… (I highly recommend this last activity, a game we have dubbed “Shotgun Shotgun.”) In fact, I’ve found myself writing entire scenes based on experiences I’ve had doing actual shit, experiences that seemed, at the time they were happening, utterly useless, a complete waste of time, a distraction from writing.

Of course, when deadlines are looming, it’s hard to convince yourself that what your book needs is an entire day spent lashing together a raft of wooden logs, then floating said raft down the West River while drinking gin and tonics, trying to keep it from disintegrating beneath you all while preserving the precious gin in a little floating cooler that keeps capsizing every time you hit a tiny rapid. Then again, as I often tell my wife, “What I’m doing may look pointless, but it’s all work, baby. It’s all part of the work.”

6 thoughts on “In Praise of Doing Actual Shit

  1. Nice blog thanks. You’ve inspired me… I’m off now to do shit – building a house for my goat.

  2. I’m at work as I read this blog on my smartphone, pumping 17000 gallons of jet fuel onto a UPS 747. When I read the about the dog eating “a steaming pile of fox shit” I damn near fell off the truck’s fuel deck laughing hysterically all the way down.
    I’m not a published writer but I do write stories for the hell of it. Write what you know is the best advice I ever got.

    • I agree about writing what you know. Sometimes it seems tricky with fantasy, but all the emotions and sensory experiences are there, even if you’ve got a world-devouring demon behind the scenes.

  3. does drinking count as actual doing shit? i notice your examples include variations such as competitive, athletic drinking, amateur maritime drinking… what about good old, no-frills hitting the bottle? drinking has been the core non-writing activity of many notable writers, such as william faulkner, ernest hemingway, raymond chandler, christopher marlowe, louisa may alcott (i think, i can’t remember for sure), and vergil (who only managed four lines a day).

    … i was shocked and horrified by the paragraph outlining the computer-assisted composition: frost to hoarfrost; pondy bog to something, etc. what impressed me about the process described (which i agree sounds excruciating) was how *not-that-*excruciating it sounds (compared to, say, doing the same thing with a good shelf of binding-and-paper reference works). as far as whether it could yield comparable results, i submit (now that i’ve been considering the question) that your computer really can get from

    “Raif looked over the windblown flats of the badlands. Ice already slicked the ponds, and frost grew on the grass beneath Raif’s feet.”

    to:

    “Raif looked over the windblown flats of the badlands. Panes of ice already lay thick over melt ponds. In the flattened colt grass beneath Raif’s feet hoarfrost grew silently and insidiously as mold on second-day bread.”

    if you detail and formalize the “cheating” process you suggest, you will eventually have pseudocode for spiffing up dull prose. it’s a lot of generalizing, detailing, and formalizing, but i cannot see that at any step it would demand major new insight or originality, either. maybe someone will do the work and bring out a “metaphor app”; maybe they have already.

    i can’t tell whether you’re declaring actual-shit based writing the winner (only) because it is more efficient, or because it brings in a fundamentally different process — with results that are of interest (and even, in a sense, true) by virtue of the fact that they came from some human’s mind. i believe the latter, but i’ll also wager that convincing automatic writing is not far off.

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