by Stuart Phillips
I have a pile of bricks. Actually, I have three piles, painstakingly excavated from the yard of my new house over the past six months. That was never my aim, but I couldn’t move a cluster of hosta next to the porch or level a space for a fire pit in the back yard without the familiar tinny chunk of shovel hitting masonry. From the sheer volume of bricks I have concluded that every mason summoned for repairs over the two hundred years of my home’s existence pulled off an offending brick, shrugged, and simply tossed it on the ground to become “architectural debris.”
I have organized my piles. One contains bricks original to the house, fired onsite in 1818. A second has the leftovers from the 1880 addition, bricks that were floated up the Hudson, a little smoother, a little pinker. The third pile comprises “new” bricks from a 1930s repair job, the sharp corners and deep reds supplied by a now-defunct brickyard in Boston.
The ground gave them up one by one, like stubborn births. I lifted them, brushed off the clinging dirt, then carried them to a new place where they rest, gravid, waiting for me to decide how best to use them. I may take years to do that; after all this time they have earned just the right spot.
Every writer exhumes bricks. You spend your life noticing, jotting down observations or even just filing them away in your memory palace. You are collecting bricks. The glide of crisp linen under your fingertips—a brick. The burn of cold air in the top of your nostril—brick. Even the acrid bite of bile when your wife says she’s leaving is a brick. Every face and every feeling is a brick, a piece to be cleaned, examined, and ultimately hoarded. Perhaps you take time in the moment to catalog its heft, trace the cracks from uneven firing, finger the chip in one corner. Or, maybe you just lay it on the pile, content to examine it later.
However you stack them, the collecting is work. Hard work. Just like a wheelbarrow and spade, you have to determine the tools that will best suit you. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins kept shelves of notebooks filled with detailed observations about nature, sketches, and ruminations inspired by what he saw. He delved into these to give life’s blood to his writing.
You might jot down your thoughts in a Moleskine that marks you as a writer as surely as a MacBook in a coffee shop. You might fill your Notes app with slices of dialogue overheard on the Red Line. Maybe you will dictate breathlessly as you walk the fields. What matters is that you do capture this, the once and future building blocks of your story.
But, a pile isn’t enough. Bricks are tools, and a tool unused is a tool wasted. These bricks are what John Gardner called, in The Art of Fiction, the “moment by moment authenticating detail.” They are the concrete fundaments that make your writing accessible yet allow it to expand into something more. Someday, with intention, you will lay them—tight, plumb, and level. You’ll mortar them with plot and subtext and an arc that binds them and jolts them to life. You may not even use them all. You may use all you have and need to make more.
I look at my piles. Within each course I have endless variations: full bricks, half bricks, bricks frosted with lime mortar. The possibilities are also endless: a retaining wall, a planter, a walkway, maybe even a pizza oven. I don’t know. I do know I’m in no hurry to use them and that come spring I’ll be adding to the pile.
Read more of Stuart’s work here at Reckon:
Fiction – Country Roads