I’m building a backyard shed this year. Several months ago, I would have told you I’m building a backyard shed this weekend. We needed more storage space and this seemed like a good idea at the time. That was before I learned that I’m actually building a small house … something a reasonably intelligent person doesn’t attempt without knowing what he’s in for.
Today, this is no longer a weekend project. It’s a quest.
Wikipedia amplifies this thought: “The object of a quest requires great exertion on the part of the hero, who must overcome many obstacles, typically including much travel to Home Depot.”
OK, I added those last three words. But ShedQuest 2019™ otherwise fits the bill. Great exertion? To dig foundation postholes, I rented a power auger. This is basically a giant corkscrew with a lawn mower engine on top, designed to separate the user’s shoulder from his torso. After starting one posthole, I realized if I tried to go any deeper I would be spending the summer in a body cast. This machine is meant to be used by burly men who operate jackhammers … not by 55-year-old writers. Six weeks later, I can almost lift my arms above my head again.
Many obstacles? How about a 3-foot wide tree stump that required the use of several saws, an ax and a medieval battle implement called a pick mattock? How about rain or the threat of rain every day for two months? How about a general lack of carpentry knowledge, supplemented by a steady diet of YouTube videos?
As days turned to weeks, I worried that the shed would become a distraction from work. As I think through tonight’s task of shingling the roof, it’s the writing and editing that have become the distraction.
For a short season, that’s not all bad.
When most of my work involves sitting in front of a screen and operating software, operating power saws and swinging a hammer feel pretty good. Building a functional (I hope) shed from thousands of pounds of 2x4s and plywood requires forethought, the right tools, occasional help and, above all, patience. The process goes: foundation, floor, walls, rafters, roof, siding … oh, and a door, which I forgot about when first building the walls. Each step takes time. Ultimately, everything fits together, but it doesn’t happen quickly or easily.
Our culture is in short supply of patience. Author and teacher Jonathan Rogers writes: “I don’t have to satisfy every curiosity that flits across my mind just because I happen to have a supercomputer in my pocket.” (I’ll admit to uttering: “Alexa, who played Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island?”) When boredom equates to not having checked our phones for 10 minutes, ShedQuest 2019™ has been a welcome change of pace and focus.
What does all of this have to do with reporting better stories? First: Working creatively (even if imperfectly) with our hands makes our brains work better. It’s actually more intellectually engaging than desk work. A short season as a part-time shed builder feels incredibly refreshing and ultimately makes me a better and more energetic writer and reporter.
Second and more deeply: When we take a break from the routine … when we choose uncertainty over predictability … when we take on a task bigger than we’re qualified for … we live a better story. We live the kind of story we look for in others. And then we recognize those stories more quickly and tell them better, because they’re already kind of familiar.
That’s way more than I bargained for from a pile of boards and nails.
Alexa, what do I do for a sore back?