Words entice. They tempt. Like the metal barrels on the family farm, stored upright in the earth-and-oil-smelling garage at the bottom of the drive. Steel drums tall as my fifth-grade shoulder. Heavy-gauge steel, fifty-five-gallons-big in circus colors.
Heavy, settled on their own flat ends, and each unique (that goes without saying), so first I must choose. The rusted red or the scratched yellow? Which chipped and dented genre? Which to tilt and twist from where it rests among its stolid fellows? It waited there for me all winter, through the cold days when I did not come to play, and for all that is harder to move now that I’ve come running on summer legs.
So, I tug and vex the barrel, inspiration, or an idea half-formed, that finally lets me. Heave. It. Over. And it slams the concrete with an empty boom that suggests loneliness and echoes off the corrugated metal walls. Thrilling rumble and reverberation, the very thing I want from words, but this is only prelude—false starts and untoward syntax as I roll my barrel, scuffing as it goes, across the oily floor, past feed bags and tractors and Papaw’s old Ford Galaxy.
I make a running start, but even then, cannot roll my work in a single effort all the way to the top of the steep gravel drive outside. Not without help from my strongest cousins, the first to figure out where novels came from, the ones who left the farm the day they graduated high school and never came back except for funerals and book signings.
But all that is in the future. Now we’re still just gangly kids in shorts and tees who will not get new shoes and haircuts until school starts in the fall. Kids who don’t know how the story ends.
With cousins, I can run at a barrel, startle it forward and roll it through the wide yawn left when I lurched the garage’s metal door sidewise, and up, up, up the drive until the barrel bogs down, which it always does, and I have to brace against the grade in worn-thin Keds, and pant and laugh and cry a little, then start again, labored line by line, gravel nouns and verbs. And if characters forget themselves or plots fray, then maybe an older cousin will critique things forward a paragraph or two, and quick as anything the barrel will roll, roll, roll, my hands up and over, up and over, into shade of the old paper birch that stands, has always stood, at the top of the rutted drive.
My barrel now, mine, no matter if it held poison or fertilizer last spring, material for world- building either way, as I straddle it, one tanned, skin-kneed leg on either side—like riding a horse if a horse were a barrel—and slip one wobbly foot atop the curving drum, then the other. And rise. And walk. Each chapter fear-defying, for at any moment I may fall, art and act at end. So, I practice, take small steps, and edit with more love than censure. Craft keeps me afloat.
Some days the barrel almost rolls itself, smooth as pages sliding from the printer, across the long grass that stretches soft and lush all the way to the end of Mamaw’s yard where lies the worn creosote-smelling highway that threads time and imagination. A dirt road when my mother was a girl, before that a wagon path, a hunting trail or buffalo trace, but all along was simply story, and will be always. Story.