Today, I was eating my lunch and I wanted something to read and so I googled “knausgaard” and found an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Nina MacLaughlin. It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve finished reading Book Two of Knausgaard’s My Struggle and still I find that I want to return to that place, that destination, that world which I slipped into each time I opened his book. Not that I want to be Knausgaard or even live his life, but by being with Knausgaard the narrator, I entered into my own quotidian existence equipped with a clean lens and a bright light. Nina MacLaughlin’s essay says, “He [Knausgaard] opens our eyes to meaning.” Every act, every choice offers the possibility of meaning. How many of us even think about our choices? Especially those small choices?
When I reached the end of the essay, I read the couple of lines about the author. “Nina MacLaughlin left her job at an alt-weekly to become a carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She’s working on a book about it to be published by W.W. Norton.” A writer of books? Another quick search yielded Nina MacLaughlin’s blog, Carpentrix with the teasing subtitle “Tools, Sweat, Building, also Books and Sometimes Sex.” I read a few posts and found that we have something else in common: mothers who knit. And in the cooler months, hardly a day goes by when I don’t have the opportunity to say the words, “My mother made it.”
I talk with my mother each week on the phone. She lives on the other side of the country, in the Pacific Northwest. She tells me about her knitting and I tell her about my writing. The two activities are not dissimilar. Writing novels might seem like an artsy way to pass the time, but the nuts and bolts of word work is a precision craft like knitting or carpentry.
There’s a practical, crafty side to my life. When I put away the tools of fiction, I strap on my rubber boots and head down to my brewery. Leaving the writing desk is always difficult for me. I want to keep writing. I want to keep reading. And as I pull on those brewery boots I think, I want to live a more literary life. But then I get to the brewery which is less than a half mile from my house and I start my work, the labor of beer making, and I wonder how I could ever give this up, this craft, this honest labor, this making of something that brings joy to myself and to others.
Yesterday, Mike and I brewed another batch of pilsner. As I was filling the last keg from the fermenter we were about to refill with the wort in the boil kettle, Mike brought me a frothy glass of the hefeweizen we’d made on Friday. Fresh, malty, tart, balance of clove and banana… a host of beery words bubbled up as I took in the aroma. Other associations like the approach of summer and afternoons on the beach came to mind as I drank in the crispy, prickly liquid. Summer in a glass.
A couple of weeks ago, I met a fellow brewer at a crafty gastropub in Manhattan and we talked about the brewing business, its trials and tribulations. You don’t go into the brewing business to make money, at least not small scale craft brewing. Eventually, my brewing colleague asked me how I got in to commercial brewing in the first place. Why did I give up homebrewing for the headaches of commercial brewing? Or why did you leave the comforts of your career-track job that guaranteed a steady income and benefits? Why turn your hobby into your career? “I thought it would be something to write about,” I said. Another life experience. Some men brave the subzero temperatures of the South Pole. Others scale the oxygen deprived heights of Everest. But I chose beer making. A possibly less lethal choice.
Thinking of Nina MacLaughlin’s blog and its subtitle, I wondered about my own blog. Should I adopt a teasing subtitle. “Kettles, Kegs, Brewing, Also Books and Sometimes… what?” I usually save the sex for my fiction. Very little sex in the brewery.
I look forward to Thursday nights the way most people look forward to Friday night. Thursday evenings are protected. No matter what’s going on in the world, Thursday is my night to say, “No, I can’t do it. I’ve got other plans.” Thursday nights are reading nights. No streaming soccer matches on the widescreen display. Just a book, and me on the couch, or the bed, or in my reading chair. “I have a date with a book,” I could say. But perhaps some wouldn’t understand.
Even though I read every day – reading is essential for the writing life – I rarely get more than an hour (here or there) on most days. Except for Thursday when I can block off three or four hours to immerse myself into something. And I won’t give that up.
My current reading list has a fair number of soccer (aka football) books given that my present writing project is soccer-themed. I’m in the research phase at the moment. The research phase for a book is the best since it involves reading and note-taking mostly. The organizational, the structural phase is less fun. The actual writing part is the labor.
There’s a long-ish piece in the New Yorker this week by John McPhee on structure (in writing). It’s an interesting article to me, as a writer, because McPhee opens the door to the workshop. I’ve always been a fan of the “Writers at Work” series in the Paris Review. Although, I can’t imagine that anyone but a writer would be all that interested in how writers go about their work. It’s literary shoptalk. What I’ve learned in two decades of reading about how other writers write is that everyone has their own bag of tricks, everyone works in their own way, and there’s no standard method. What works for one writer, won’t necessarily work for another.
Working methods differ, but the basic process is the same: conception, organization, implementation, revision, (and finally) publication. How a writer goes about navigating that process is his business.
I still don’t know what sort of soccer book I’m going to write. When I first got interested in writing about soccer (the latter part of 2011) my first idea was to write a book about youth soccer, a vaguely fictional memoir about a dad coaching his son’s team. The first thing I did was a “literature search.”
When I was in graduate school, I had to come up with an original research problem. That original problem would be the subject of the dissertation I would need to write to complete my degree. The originality of the idea was key. I couldn’t just do something that had already been done, the idea had to be completely fresh, something new in the world, pertaining to a problem that had never been solved before. So each time I came up with an idea (the conception phase) I’d trudge off to the library (the Internet was still in its infancy back then) and do a literature search. The mechanics were slightly different than doing a Google search, but the idea is the same. The literature search had to be complete and exhaustive. The worst thing is to pick a project, spend a year or two working on it, and then discover that it’s already been done before.
It didn’t take me long to find Jim Haner’s book Soccerhead. The subtitle of the book gives you an idea of what the subject matter is: “An accidental journey into the heart of the American game.” But it’s the premise that gives the book its structure: a dad who gets drafted to coach his son’s soccer team learns about the game and it’s history and development. Haner covers the story of soccer in America, giving an entertaining history of the game embedded in the context of his trials and tribulations as a youth soccer coach. It’s a brilliantly done book. And there’s no reason why I should try to rewrite it. Okay, perhaps things are different in the US, ten years since Soccerhead‘s publication, but there are other soccer books I could write, so why redo that one?
I’d moved to Long Island for practical reasons having to do with my writing career. And after three years of working on a novel, a colleague of mine, another writer, encouraged me to take up blogging. This colleague had been experimenting with blogging about wine. He knew that I was an amateur brewer, so he kept bugging me about writing a craft beer blog. Somewhat reluctantly, I gave it a try. And the experience I gained over the subsequent five years helped shape my thinking about culture and society. I wasn’t satisfied to limit myself to writing just about craft beer, I wanted to write about American culture and what the craft beer movement represented in that context. The connections I made in those five years led to a partnership with two other brewers, and together we founded and launched a craft brewery of our own. Now that I’m a professional brewer and not just a beer writer, I have a different relationship to the local beer scene. So what I write about the world of craft beer is colored by this new perspective.
I thought about giving up writing about craft beer altogether. During that time I indulged myself in working on a number of fiction projects I’d started over the years and not quite finished because I was so wrapped up in chasing after craft beer. With the beer blogging out of the way I felt free to flirt with other subjects. And because my son was getting more involved with soccer and his team needed an assistant coach, my life started revolving more and more about the axis of the soccer pitch and less about the pub. The change was also good for my health. Running around after eight and nine year olds is good exercise, and after a few months I noticed my beer gut shrinking.
Writing about the craft beer movement allowed me to write about culture, economics, politics, psychology, and pretty much anything else that interested me. Craft beer was a lens. And through that lens I hoped to gain new insights about how American society is put together, what’s going well, and where we’re making mistakes. After a few months of talking with people in the soccer world and reading whatever I could find on the subject, I realized that soccer was also a lens. And the soccer lens could be trained on the same aspects of American society, culture, economics, etc. And, additionally, soccer and craft beer were connected by the umbilical of the pub and the stadium terrace where beer drinking and spectating meld into the same act (like chocolate and peanut butter).
Last year, shortly after my brewery got its final operational license in place, I was talking with Rasan about a book that I thought I was going to write, a book about my and my business partner’s experiences in getting a small brewery up and running. I’d just read a book by Gabriel Kuhn called Soccer versus the State and I’d realized that we’d been running our brewery as an anarchist collective (without realizing it) for nearly five years. Reading Kuhn’s book started my mental wheels turning. At the heart of the craft beer movement is a (sublimated?) commitment to anarchism, and certainly an overt commitment to doing things for yourself rather than confining one’s role in society to that of passive consumer. But I also started thinking about our local soccer club, and the pay-for-play model that we all agreed to uncritically. What Kuhn had written about freeing the game from capitalist shackles seemed right to me. Soccer is a game. People get together and kick a ball for fun. I’d already run into the politics of the use of public space and how that is controlled, and regulated with fee structures that are designed to keep out “undesirable elements” (poor people and recent immigrants). The fees we had to pay to get our brewing license were not huge, but I wondered why the State had what amounted to a pay-for-play policy when it came to starting a new business. It was like they were saying, unless you are part of the monied elite, don’t bother us, stay chained to your soul-killing, alienating nine-to-five slave-work like a good boy. Imagine it. What if anyone who wanted to could make their own beer and sell or trade it to whomever they wanted without interference from the State – it would be anarchy. And that’s good thing. Gabriel Kuhn, with his little book about soccer, had completely changed the way I thought about anarchy. I’d been operating under a misconception about anarchism all my life. After reading Kuhn’s book, I realized that I had been a closeted anarchist. Kuhn gave me the courage to come out of that closet and declare my natural born and instinctive anarchist tendencies. And if a book about soccer can do that, then I thought (as a writer) the subject was worth studying.