By Stuart Phillips
Recently, a writer called my work “honest and soulful.” That was touching, especially since I didn’t know he had read anything of mine. The realization that you never know who reads, and likes, your work reminded me of when I came home to Mississippi after my first hitch in the Army. One Friday night I was at the Hoka in Oxford chatting with Ron Shapiro and eating a slice of cheesecake so dense that each batch caused a cream cheese shortage from Water Valley to Pontotoc. A pretty girl started to walk by, then hesitated. I figured she wanted to talk to Ron, who was, after all, a local celebrity. Instead, she put a hand on my arm.
“Are you Stuart Phillips?”
“I was two years behind you at Lee Academy.” She dropped her hand. “I had the biggest crush on you in high school.”
I blushed and Ron laughed and she left.
I thought about that recently when I saw an installation by New York artist Julia Whitney Barnes. “Hudson River of Bricks.” Whitney Barnes collected bricks from the one hundred or so brickyards that once lined the Hudson River Valley, then laid them in the shape of the river itself, making the bricks flow from Mechanicville to New York City.
It was a striking display, but what struck me was the unknowing legacy of those craftsmen. I pictured the hours spent digging the clay, mixing with sand and coal, hand-packing forms, baking them in a kiln—all before finally loading them onto a barge and floating the bricks down to the City. Did they wonder if their bricks would go to construct a fine home, or a dismal factory? Or did they just send them off into the world and then move on to the next load?
I like to think that the brickyard worker gleaned an occasional flash of satisfaction as he looked at a pallet of still-warm bricks and imagined a father tucking his children to bed in a sturdy house. I like to think that he appreciated his contribution to providing homes and jobs, that he felt pride as he told himself that his bricks were better than the ones made in Kingston or Dutchess Junction.
As a writer, you produce words and thoughts just like these craftsmen made bricks. You begin with raw material—the clay of an idea—that you then mold with native skill and hours of training until you have a brick, whether you call it a story, a poem, a novel, or a play. When you’re done, you load it onto a barge and push it out into the world. And then—what?
You just don’t know. And that, in a nutshell, is the inherent unfairness of creating art (or trying to, anyway). You labored over your creation, crafting every turn of phrase, agonizing over every comma, all in the hopes that it will be appreciated—that your brick will go into something “worthy” of the work you put into it. And you certainly deserve recognition/validation for what you have created. But maybe we misapprehend what that recognition is, or what it should be.
Your recognition can be external or internal. Externally, it might come in the form of book sales or reviews or prizes. Internally, validation may well come in the form of increased empathy, self-awareness, or just your own satisfaction in a job well done.
Maybe your words will catch the attention of an agent, an editor, or a reviewer. Perhaps your novel is destined to be pulled off the shelf a hundred years from now and read for its insight and cleverness. But, on a more basic level, your poem might catch one person in Montana at the precise moment he needs comforting after the death of a loved one. Your short story may have a percipient phrase that salves the spirit of a single parent in Kentucky who is struggling to make it through the day.
Is there any difference if your brick is used in making a two-story home or if it’s used in making an opera house? To the family who lives there, your brick is essential. And if only one person is reached by your words, they are the most important words in the world. To that person.
For me, the one “honest and soulful” comment is enough to keep me making bricks for months. To keep floating them down the river. Because I believe that as much as making those bricks changes me, it changes others, even if I don’t know it in the moment.
Read Stuart’s other work here at Reckon:
Fiction: Country Roads
Stuart Phillips is an expatriate Mississippian, former Army officer, and recovering lawyer who now lives and writes in the Mohawk Valley of New York. A graduate of Ole Miss, Pepperdine (JD) and Fairfield University (MFA), Stuart is slowly driving himself mad with revisions on The Great Southern Novel. You can follow his descent at stuartphillips.work or on Instagram @deltawriter12.