Do Tough Life Experiences Make Better Writers?
Some time ago, as I absorbed my morning caffeine, I read my friend Rae Ellen Lee’s excellent book Cheating the Hog, which is the story of a woman working in a sawmill in a remote area. As I read scenes describing the hard physical labor, I was reminded of when I worked at a tree farm during graduate school in Oklahoma. The farm was owned by the US Forest Service and, forest and wilderness lover that I have always been, I thought it was cool to be able to say I worked for the USFS.
The work was definitely not cool, though. The farm grew trees to plant on public lands and give to farmers for windbreaks and shade trees. We labored in treeless Oklahoma farm fields instead of in the wild. The job had previously been done by convicts, which should have been a hint on multiple levels.
Our job as workers was to weed the tiny seedlings as they grew, and then harvest and bundle them when they were big enough to ship. The weather seemed to always be freezing or blistering hot, and the wind always blew, so by the end of a shift in the fields, we looked like a scene from the Grapes of Wrath, struggling to stand erect again and plastered in red dirt. I sure could have used some of my current mask collection back then to keep the dust out of my mouth and nose. We had to pee in the sparse windbreaks and drink from a container of warm stale water, but the experience wasn't all bad. Stuck out in the middle of the vast acreage for hours on end, we field crews bonded through stories and songs.
When we harvested the trees, some workers walked behind the shaker tractor attachment, tossing the saplings up onto the conveyer belt, which bounced violently to knock off the soil clinging to roots. Those of us along the sides of the belt pulled the trees into the same orientation, roots to roots. When it rained, we were covered in mud instead of dust. The only indoor jobs were bundling saplings, which involved counting and wrapping them. Not too bad, except when we handled what were called “rose trees,” which had long thorns sharp and strong enough to punch through leather gloves. I could understand how those trees would make great windbreaks around pastures; no self-respecting animal or human would try to break through that barrier.
At the time, I was putting myself through college and I needed to work every hour that I was not in class. I was peeved that this was the only type of work I could find that fit around my class schedule. But now I’m grateful for the experience, and I know it made me a better writer. I know what it's like to have to earn every possible penny just to pay rent and eat. I’ve had a small taste of what the work is like for the pickers I see these days, stooped over the berry fields around my Pacific Northwest town. I know how their backs hurt and their hands get cut up. I also know that they share stories, and I hope they share songs and friendships, too.
Along the road of life, I try to pick up nuggets of wisdom whenever I recognize one, and at the tree farm I gained a jewel. It was winter, and a bunch of us were busy freezing our butts off and puncturing our hands with thorns in the unheated packing shed. One girl was talking about being mad at something that had happened. Then another co-worker said, “Whenever I get really angry, I ask myself: Will I care about this a year from now? If the answer is Yes, then I do something about it; if the answer is No, I let it go.” It’s a great principle to live by. If I could only remember her name, I’d track down that worker and say Thank You.
All these reflections have me wondering what writers who grew up with more privileged lives have to write about. Seems to me like they’d be missing out on how half the world lives and thinks. I used some of my field work knowledge in my young adult suspense, Race with Danger, when I needed a way for my teenage protagonist to survive after she suddenly becomes homeless. But maybe the privileged authors are the ones who write about shopping and makeup and mean girls in private schools, and there’s a place for all that, too. Or maybe they are the wonderful fantasy writers, or maybe they simply learn how other people live from books like Rae Ellen Lee’s.
Cheating the Hog includes a lot of scenes describing the insidious and often dangerous sexism practiced in the sawmill. I can identify with that, too, although most of my tangles with predatory men came in two white-collar jobs: a government office and a geological laboratory. My experiences there make for richer writing, too, and also made me a better private investigator when I worked in that field. But that’s a subject for another blog post.