Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spending Time in the Mine by Steve Bramucci

Tenderfoot Clemens had a strange taste in hats.

Before Sam Clemens became Mark Twain, he was a miner. A failed miner in fact—because he never did take a liking to actually doing the work involved in prospecting. He did manage to strike it rich once, however, when he and his friends discovered that gold coming out of a claim called "Wide West" was not actually a part of that claim's rock veins, but contained within a separate "blind lead".  Therefore, the three men were able to stake it as their own. For exactly ten days, Clemens and his two partners basked in the glow of their soon-to-be fortunes. They spent money on credit, they visited friends, they savored their celebrity, but they failed to make any improvements on their claim. 

Thus, according to Nevada law, the claim was forfeited. The rule was: you must spend time in the mine. 

It was not the last fortune Clemens would lose, but it was the last one he lost as a miner. Shortly thereafter, he gave up prospecting to write stories of the west and, eventually, he became the Mark Twain that we all know. 

Those are the eyes of a man who knows what it feels like to lose millions.
Though Twain didn't continue as a miner, the lesson of losing a valuable claim by failing to improve it seems to have stuck with him. As an author, when he was hot on an idea, he would mine it for all it was worth, following it to see if there was gold contained therein. When he cooled on a project, he would allow himself to switch to something more promising. In this way, he actually left and returned to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a number of times. He didn't always know the way to proceed with that book, but he knew there was gold hidden somewhere. He trusted his instinct.

The metaphor of writer as a miner is one that I like. We are digging in the sediment of our brains, hoping to connect with a golden idea, voice, or character and lug it up to the surface for all to see. In order to do so, we must first explore the frontier to find a good claim. We must imagine. We must dream up ideas. When we find ourselves fussing around someone else's tailings, trying to pick over what has already been done, we have only one directive that can help us: venture further, into the unknown. 

Once we do strike something promising, the writer must spend time in the mine. We have to improve our claim. We have to dig deep and scrape away anything that does not hold value. We have to constantly look at our findings away from the musty confines of the mine shaft to see how they hold the light of the sun, trying our best to divine whether they are pyrite or the real deal. If they're found to be false gold, we have a choice (which we have to trust our instincts on): dig deeper or pack it up and find a new vein. 

There is one major difference however between the miner and the writer: gold is gold. It will always be gold. It can be confused with other substances, but to an assayer it is unarguable. The writer is in a far more merciless profession (one that we have chosen, one that we have tirelessly chased, one that we have sacrificed comfort for). In our business what is gold to us is not always gold to others. Agents, editors, reviewers, readers might all look at it and shrug. They might say, "nothing special."

We might come to them with our gold and they might disagree about it's value.

The moment of truth.

It happens to everyone (if it hasn't happened to you, for God's sake don't tell anybody!). And when it does happen, or when the difficulties of the writer's life get too punishing to bear, we have a choice just like Clemens the miner did: pack it in or keep digging. 

Now, I have read all of the brilliant articles and controversial articles and click-bait articles on what "makes" a writer. I have heard self-styled purists say that writing can't be taught (if so, it is the only human activity in the history of time to hold this distinction). In my time as a writer I have taken risks, I have succeeded, and I have failed. I have had days where I thought I was holding the most brilliantly gleaming gold know to humankind, and I have had days in which I was sure—dead-set certain—that I'd given my life over to dredging up the lowest form of muck. 

And after all that, I have only one conclusion about what actually makes a writer: it is simply the willingness to wake up, cook a can of beans over the fire, pick up your worn out tools, and clamber back into the mine. 

Because, for all the hardships, it invigorates us.
Because, no matter how many times we consider getting our real estate license instead, we know that nothing else could provide such a rush. 
Because if we could give it up, the way Clemens gave up mining, we really might. 

But we can't give it up (just as author-Twain wrote to the very end). Even if it means working a second full time job to keep us in "writing money". Even if it means waking up before the kids in order to sneak some words in. 

We are writers. Hoping to strike gold in the metaphorical (and, in our moments of bold fantasy, the literal) sense, in love with the synapse-electrifying feeling that such intoxicating hope brings. We can tweet about the industry, or promotion techniques, or how it's getting more and more difficult and rare to strike something that truly shinesbut when the dissection of an un-dissectible industry is over and done there is only one thing to do. 

Get back in the mine. 

I'll see you down there friends. I'm staking a new claim today. Feels promising. 

Hopefully, unlike this photograph, the mines we writers explore aren't filled exclusively with white, bearded men. #WENEEDDIVERSEBOOKS


  1. I love this, Steve! Thanks so much. I'm in the early drafting stages of a new WIP, and I love the mining imagery. I shall keep digging deeper! Welcome aboard PM!

  2. Great post Steve, and welcome to Project Mayhem. I especially resonated with this: "When we find ourselves fussing around someone else's tailings, trying to pick over what has already been done, we have only one directive that can help us: venture further, into the unknown." Such a great metaphor for this work we do. Cheers!

  3. Fantastic call to action, Steve, and so spot on. Let's share a can of beans around a fire and tell tales of the motherlode.

  4. Great post--and loved the photographs! That Mark Twain left (and returned) to Huckleberry Finn several times gives me hope.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!