On Painting Houses & Writing Books

I painted my house this late summer into fall.

The outside.

Up on the roof, high on ladders. Scraping, priming, the works. A slow process. A day here, a day there. Weekends when it didn’t rain. Physical work, too. Hauling ladders, standing braced on steep inclines, literally hanging on for dear life with one hand in some places. It took some getting used to. Not my usual line of work. 

You should know that I’m not practiced at this stuff. No one would mistake me for a handyman. Others might handle this easily, but for me it was a challenge. My own mountain to climb. But for a variety of reasons — the $7,000 estimate and some spare time (virtue of grown children) — I decided to take on this big project. I sought out different friends for advice, tips, strategies. Bought the supplies. And got started.

There were times I was absolutely frightened. Because I so did not want to become that guy with the broken back, or worse. A distinct possibility. As time wore on, I get better with the heights. Felt safer, more secure. Used to it. But never ever fully comfortable. I don’t think you want to feel too comfortable. That’s when mistakes are made. 

One day, for instance, I purchased a long rope at Lowes. Came back home, looked at it for a long time, then went back and bought a thicker rope. I tied it around my chimney, put on a borrowed harness from my good neighbor Bill, tied the rope to it, and stepped out on the steep incline that I’d been dreading for weeks. Seriously, I’d look at that spot every day and wonder: How am I going to do that without falling? I hammered a nail into the trim and hung a small red paint can from it, so I’d have a free hand to hold onto the rope. Not so bad after all. Steady as she goes. 

I very much enjoyed it. Being alone. Slowly making progress.

In many respects, it was much easier than my regular job. The key was to accept the process, take my time and do what had to be done. Slowly, patiently, carefully. I didn’t have to finish the entire house. If the windows needed to be reglazed, I’d do it. Some rotted wood? I’d patch or replace. Just do what was in front of me. Winter was going to come regardless. I accepted that I might run out of time. Miss my deadline. And that it would have to be okay. 

Doing the job, I found myself dreaming up new thoughts about the book I’ve been writing. Or, actually, not writing. Stuck, trapped, bored, angry, blocked, uncertain. Whatever you want to call it. But I’ve finished enough books in my life to know that eventually I’d land the plane. Meanwhile I was circling in stormy skies, seeking open ground. 

I got distracted for days, weeks, months. Wasted time. Uninspired. Full of doubt. Did the world really need another mediocre manuscript? But I could gradually sense a thawing. Maybe the words would come after all. Maybe I’d have something to say.

The reality that no one — or very few — will care to read the final result was and still is part of the problem for me. To work so hard and fill it all with hope, only to be disappointed is, well, disappointing.

And yet, and yet.

Here’s the thing:

There was a moment that happened to me, and it happens to pretty much anyone who paints a house. I was up on the ladder, frowning. One coat wasn’t going to be good enough. It looked okay enough, but. Then I glanced down and to the street. Two women were passing, walking a dog. Could they tell? Would they ever know, from that distance, if I only painted only one coat?

No, I decided, they wouldn’t notice. 

But I would. 

And I realized, of course, that I was going to put on that second coat. The entire house. The walls and the trim. And with that decision, the job got a lot bigger. And more satisfying. 

Yes, I thought, painting is a lot like writing a book — even if no one reads it.  

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