J. Robert King

Of Grit

Writers aren’t supposed to have grit.

Well, writers who aren’t Hemingway or Kerouac or London.

Writers like me, well, we can’t have grit. We don’t even have fiber. We look like risen dough that hasn’t yet been baked.

Still, I’ve written two books in the last eight months while working a full-time job. Most people won’t write one book in a whole lifetime.

Writing a book takes a certain level of grit.

My grandfather used to tell me about surviving the Great Depression. He launched his own job-printing shop in the middle of it and nearly starved (as did his son, which would have been the end of me). When World War II began, Grandpa took a second job to make ends meet. He got  up at five to man his print shop from six to one, then got into a sedan with four others to drive an hour to Peoria and work the three to eleven shift at Caterpillar. Afterward, they piled into the sedan and got home at midnight. Grandpa got to sleep at one to wake at five and start it all again.

That’s grit.

But that’s also what I did to write these novels. Every evening and every weekend, I worked. And writing a novel isn’t like threading nuts onto bolts–unless you have to drag the nuts and bolts out of your abdomen and crank them into place while they’re still squirming.

No, it takes grit to write a novel. My boys see it–the long nights on the front porch crouched over my netbook, swearing. But how can they learn about grit?

Wisconsin, in its inimitable way, provides a way. Today, we have not just four inches of snow, but four inches now being compacted by freezing rain. I decide to go out and clear it. My wife tells me to take one of the boys, all of whom are playing video games and all of whom are deeply in debt to us because of buying Christmas presents for each other.

I complain to my wife that I can do the job faster on my own.

Jennie tells me that that is not the point.

So, my second son and I labor to clear our drive and walkways. I am doing, as predicted, five times what he is, though in honesty, I have the big shovel. But when my son starts complaining about his back–his twelve-year-old back!–I’ve had it.

“You know all those historical figures you so admire?” I ask, because this kid is a history buff, “like William Wallace and Napoleon and Genghis Khan?”

He nods, rain freezing in his hair.

“Well, they had something you don’t have. It’s called grit.”

“What’s grit?”

“Grit is not caring about yourself, but just about the mission. Grit is wanting to do the job better than anyone else.”

I was amazed by the transformation. The kid actually started shoveling. And he started taking the freezing rain not as an imposition but as a badge of honor. We cleared our front walks and those of the neighbors on either side–our standard procedure–but then I said to him, “What do you think? Can we clear their drives in back, too?”

My son smiled, and I could see the grit between his teeth. “Sure.”

So, we cleared their back drives too, just me and a twelve-year-old and a couple shovels. And I should tell you I gave him the big shovel when he said, “Sure.” And the kid showed grit. We worked side by side, clearing, and we felt a mutual rush of accomplishment when we stood there in the freezing rain and saw the three drives that we had cleared.

Thank God for snow!

We’ve worked so hard to save our children from every inconvenience, and as a result, they’re  a bunch of pupae. Snow is one inconvenience we haven’t yet overcome. It must be shoveled. Where else can a middle class suburban white kid learn a little bit about grit?

My neighbors will come home and find their drives cleared and feel as if they have been given a gift this Christmas. But it’s my son and I who have received the gift.

December 23rd, 2009
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