An odd juxtaposition of topics arose during a wonderful recent discussion with a mentor. The topics? Lumberyard procedure and storytelling tools. See? I told you it was odd. But it got me thinking about utilizing tools in a new light. Allow me to explain.
Versatile Tool: My insight starts with the forklift. Some may know the tool by the names fork-truck or lift-truck. Anyone who’s visited a lumberyard has likely witnessed the importance of the forklift to the business. Building materials are often heavy—dangerously so. Unloading trucks and railcars, storing stock, picking specific lots or tallies, and jobsite delivery are all tasks that rely on this marvelous piece of equipment. In a former life, I managed a lumber facility that operated over two dozen forklifts, ranging from small indoor propane models, to very large capacity diesel models. We even had one behemoth capable of lifting and hauling other stalled forklifts to our service shop. Even though we milled, prefinished, and delivered lumber on a broad range of equipment, the forklift was the piece of equipment that was indispensable to all aspects of our operation.
A forklift is really many tools in one piece of equipment. It lifts and lowers loads, as well as tilting them, and is often capable of shifting a load from side to side. It also transports both load and driver, forward and back, and in some cases with a multi-speed transmission, capable of going upwards of 30 mph.
The Daunt of Big Tools: Over the years, I oversaw the training of scores of employees in their operation and ongoing safe use of the forklift. It was a responsibility I never took lightly. Handling a powerful machine that can lift and move loads of massive weight and scale, in close proximity to others, calls for serious and ongoing diligence. One can never allow himself to become blasé about it.
Over the years I noticed that some forklift trainees were daunted by this fairly complex and dangerous machine. Sometimes to the point of becoming overly-cautious and hesitant in their use. Rightfully so. In such cases, it was necessary to build a trainee’s confidence by giving them simple tasks and small loads, out of harm’s way. At the end of the day, you can only read so many manuals or watch so many training videos. At some point, you have to get behind the wheel. The only cure for inexperience is to gain experience.
I suspect you might be starting to glean what my forklift background has to do with my writing epiphany.
An Impetuous Baseline: Allow me to use myself—as a former forklift driver as well as a writer—to illustrate the analogy. I started driving a forklift before I was licensed to drive a car. No, it wasn’t legal. Or safe. But it was a long time ago. Jobsite safety was not the priority it has rightly become. And I was under the supervision of men who had their own jobs to do, and who expected young men to have a natural aptitude for driving and tool use. And, as a typical teenage male, I was anxious to prove them right.
“The young are always ready to give those older than themselves the full benefit of their inexperience.” ~Oscar Wilde
In other words, I was a hotdog, a showoff, eager to test my own limits as well as the limits of this powerful machine. I’d had a few experimental, off-road experiences behind the wheel of a car before my first time on a forklift. And I’d watched a lot of others, both driving cars and operating forklifts, with an avid interest born of the anticipation to drive. So I had a baseline of experience from which I drew my confidence to try my hand at operating this complex piece of equipment. I didn’t know what I was doing, and my early efforts demonstrated my inexperience. Yet I somehow managed to get quite a bit done. And managed to not kill or maim myself or anyone else in the process.
“Never let inexperience get in the way of ambition.” ~Terry Josephson
The same goes for writing fiction. When I started, I was excited to “just do it.” I’d done some experimental, off-road (read: not to be shown) writing in the past. And I’d read a lot of books, with an avid interest born of the anticipation to become an author. What more did I need?
Needless to say, I didn’t know what I was doing, and my initial efforts clearly demonstrated my inexperience. And yet I managed to get quite a bit done. (And the only resulting injuries suffered were by my characters—unless you include the bafflement or boredom of some early readers.)
Caution Born of Experience:
“Intuition is reason in a hurry.” ~Holbrook Jackson
As the years went by, I not only gained skill that eventually became expertise, I came to more fully appreciate both what a forklift was capable of accomplishing, and just how potentially dangerous and costly its ill-use could be. I’d gotten to a point where operating a forklift seemed to come by rote. It felt intuitive. But I was often reckless and rushed. I had near misses and spills. More than I care to admit. Thankfully, my recklessness never led to injury, but it often came with a cost, in time and money due to damage. But with maturity came the wisdom that hurrying with a forklift often led to delay and mishap.
“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” ~Albert Einstein
I was once a prolific writer. I don’t say this to show off. I produced many pages per day without pause. In the rush to “be finished” and to submit and be read, the words just poured out. It honestly felt good. I got to a point where it felt intuitive. I knew how to drive, and wanted to step on the gas, to get to the damn destination, already. The first draft of my epic fantasy trilogy was over 650,000 words. I was so naïve, I didn’t even know such a length might be considered a pitfall.
It was only through being read and critiqued, and then through trying again, and again, that I realized the cost of my hurry. Six years later, and only through many rewrites, through working with a professional editor and coach, and through many critiques, have I come to realized how much I didn’t know—to find pause to consider how much I still don’t know.
Taking Stock of the Lesson Load: So here I am, a decade into this new gig, experienced but cautious, still eager but mindful of the patience required for success. I doubt I’m as skilled a writer as I once was a forklift operator, but close enough to illustrate my point. The epiphanies I reach are manifold, but the biggest lessons seem to fall into two categories:
1)Structure and Efficiency: As a forklift operator, I learned to see a load of lumber to be built as a series of steps to be addressed. Each order becomes a unit, built with a solid foundation and a stackable shape. Units must then be carefully placed on the truck, in the proper order; delivery routes in the proper succession, to achieve any sort of efficiency. Knowing the optimal structure of a load allows you to more easily handle the addition of complexity. Once beyond a load’s basic size and shape, one must consider geography, urgency, fragility, perishability, to name a few. It’s wise to know the rules, but it also pays to learn how to best break them and when.
As a writer, I’ve learned to see story structure as an aid—a series of steps to be addressed in pursuit of efficient storytelling. From inciting incident to crisis to reaction to climax and resolution, it’s wise to know how to stack the basic blocks of the story I seek to build. If I know the basics of structure, I can then take into account the setting, timeline and peripheral obstacles. To maximize its impact efficiently, I must consider not only the goals and motivations of my characters, I need to be conscious of their worldview and the state of their psyche. After all, it’s not just about delivering my characters to “The End.” Rather, it’s about the changes accrued in making the journey, and the state they arrive in.
2) Complexity and Intuition: As I pointed out, the forklift is a complex and versatile tool. If an operator stopped to think about each and every step, carefully considered each and every lever and pedal individually, with each successive use, it would either slow progress to impracticality, or completely debilitate the attempt. With practice, the operator gains the intuition to size up the load in question, find its center of gravity, lower the forks while steering and accelerating to scoop, tilt and lift while backing, shift gears while steering to avoid obstacles in route, gauge the proper height and alignment upon the approach to a truck bed, etcetera. Advance planning of the steps, and constant surveillance of the surroundings and assessment of the progress are needed, but these additional considerations also come more naturally with experience.
As I said, I’ve become a cautious writer. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also allowed the lessons to make me hesitant, allowed my awareness of the tools to overwhelm my progress. I have put in a lot of practice, and I’ve found my way to successes. I know how to plan and assess progress, and I’ve demonstrated I’m persistent enough to get to “The End.” I long to make progress, and yet I’ve become tentative.
Deliberate Intuitiveness: Thinking about my former skill operating a forklift reminds me to have faith in my experience. I need to get to a place of trusting my instincts again. Not in an impetuous or immature way. It’s not that I believe I have instinctual talent. But I do believe in my innate ability to adjust based on experience, to sublimate my story impulses, to unconsciously apply practiced lessons.
I need to trust that I know my way around the levers and pedals of story by rote, and get this story built and delivered. After all, you can’t build an order file until prove you can deliver. And I’ve got a lot of back-stock to work through.
Fork it Over: What’s your intuitive skill? Does it provide a baseline for accumulating expertise? Do you ever find yourself worrying too much about all the levers and pedals of storytelling? Please deliver your load in the comments.
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