Stacking Wood and Sentences

June 10, 2022 § 24 Comments

By Kelsey Francis

As a writer living in a 100-year-old house with too many windows and not enough insulation, I’ve gotten used to wrapping myself in fleece and wearing a wool hat at my writing desk.  In the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, the temperatures frequently plummet to below zero for months, and you learn to drive on snow packed roads for half the year. As such, we talk a lot about the weather with neighbors and friends and those conversations often lead to an important question: what kind of heat do you use?

We began heating our house with a woodstove in 2006. I was newly pregnant and we worried about the rising cost of heating oil. So, we ordered a truckload of firewood and watched it dumped on our front yard during a steady October rain. So began my relationship with stacking wood.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the various species of wood and the best way to build a fire in the woodstove on a cold January morning. But the most important lesson of firewood is that the drier the wood the more efficient the fire. And the way to ensure dry wood is to stack it in the spring, so it has plenty of time to “season” before you need to start burning it in the fall.

In my now 15 years of wood stacking, I’ve discovered an unlikely connection between the logs and my writing. I began to find the repetitive nature of lifting each piece of wood from the wheelbarrow and figuring out how to position it on the pile required a physical focus, but also allowed my mind to wander. I could think about a new idea for an essay or work out a conclusion in a short story that had been giving me trouble. I could occupy a writing space in my head, while my body moved. It was different from going for a walk or run or my commute to work. Using my arms to lift pieces of wood and then using my hands to position those pieces, so that they “fit” became an exercise in prewriting. Whole stories were taking shape in my head. Dialogue. Motivations. Background. The smell of a hospital room. The itch from the neck of a wool sweater.

And it wasn’t just the ideas that seemed to come while stacking. I began to see that the stacking itself had a lot in common with the actual writing. Building piles of maple, birch, ash, and poplar was like building sentences and paragraphs in a story. Different species of wood had different textures and weight, just as the weight and texture of a sentence can vary–in length, in structure, in word choice, in function.

I knew this sounded strange to my friends and family: You actually like stacking wood? they would ask.

Yes, I do. I get to write while I stack! I would reply.

Stacking wood has become a form of writing meditation for me. Better than any other activity I’ve tried to release writer’s block. It’s both calming and productive. Yes, it leaves me tired and with an achy back, but no more so than sitting at my desk pounding away at a keyboard only to abandon a new piece in frustration. Stacking firewood has become my annual personalized DIY craft of writing pep talk.

I now eagerly look forward to our springtime firewood deliveries because firewood means stacking and stacking means both a break from the long, dark Adirondack winter and a breakthrough in my long, dark winter writing slump.

Kelsey Francis’s work has appeared in Porcupine Literary, HAD, Twin Pies Literary, The Washington Post, Adirondack Life Magazine, and the “Modern Love” column of The New York Times, among others. She lives, teaches high school English, and writes in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. She can be found on Twitter @ADK_Kelsey

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