Michael Perry is a New York Times bestselling author, humorist and radio show host from New Auburn, Wisconsin. In July, 2016, he spent a week in residency at Write On. This “Roughneck Grace” column was originally published in the Wisconsin State Journal.
I just spent three days writing in a chicken coop and completing the final draft of a play. Both are new experiences.
I’ve never really felt like I required a special place in which to write. This sentiment arises in part from my having never once heard my brother the logger say he needs a special place to sharpen his saw, and we are both in the business of converting trees.
Mostly I simply believe in getting the work done in the space available (in fact this entire column is being typed in the passenger seat of a 2002 Toyota minivan running Highway 29 for three hours not counting bathroom breaks). But when given the opportunity to rearrange words in amenable surroundings, I know enough to be grateful — and get to work.
And so when the organization Write On, Door County gave me the opportunity to weave into one of my small self-employment yapping tours a visit of their facilities and to spend some time working in Norb Blei’s old chicken coop up there in Door County, I did so with thanks.
Unless the experience is lost to my ever-expanding collection of memory holes, I don’t believe I ever met Norb Blei. Much of what I have learned of the legendary Door County (by way of Chicago) writer has come via excellent pieces written by Myles Dannhausen. It was thanks to Dannhausen that I was able to take my seat in Mr. Blei’s old wooden chair informed about, and with proper reverence and respect for, the millions (and it was easily millions) of words that had percolated (and often boiled over) within those close wooden walls.
I got some good work done in there. My stay coincided with a gloriously breezy, sunny stretch, which meant I got to write to the tune of my favorite soft symphony: summer sounds through an open screen. There were disruptions, of course. Specifically, a hummingbird, two spotted fawns, and a persistent gopher. And I did have to struggle back to civilization at least twice a day for fresh coffee. But each time I flagged, or was tempted to bug out and check the news, I looked at the varnish on the low table before me, and knew it had the sort of shine that only comes from a pair of elbows regularly applied, and I got back to work.
This play I’m working on is an adaptation of a book I wrote some time ago. Among other challenges, I am most daunted by the fact that I have to cut 80 percent of the words in the book in order to fit it to stage time (lest I trigger a wave of numb butts and narcolepsy). But then “daunting” runs a sliding scale, and frankly comes in well below logging.
So again, I was happy to be there, scrivening in a chair polished by a man who understood your No. 1 writing tool is located at the back of your pants and only works when it’s planted.
Just before leaving, with a few more thousand words toward my own million, I read another piece in which Dannhausen describes Mr. Blei taking a moment to break from conversation and open the trunk of his car, in which resided copies of his books, always for sale.
“The true mark of a Midwestern writer,” wrote Dannhausen, “[is] a trunk full of copies of his books, ready to hustle.” And that made me smile, because that’s how this column ends: Me typing away while my wife drives our little family along, another mixed work/vacation trip winding down, and eight feet behind me in the rear of this old van, two cardboard boxes filled with my books — the good news being, when the trip began, there were three.