a novel by
The Story Before The Story
Since there are still bills to pay even in the middle of the woods (for things like rent, food, and firewood), I needed a plan to earn an income while writing the novel. I’d thought about this before making the move, and had decided on a unique approach: I would make a living in the woods by working as a…grapevine wreath-maker.
Yes, a grapevine wreath-maker.
While living at the cabin, each day I walked for miles and miles into the woods and pulled tangled ropes of grapevines down from the branches of trees. Then I cut the vines, stripped them of their leaves, wrapped and wound them into beautiful, rustic wreaths. Finally, carrying the day’s heavy load of finished wreaths across my back, I walked back out of the woods and returned to the cabin.
In retrospect, this business plan certainly wasn’t the brightest or most lucrative idea I’d ever developed. Actually, it eventually turned out to be the exact opposite of bright and lucrative. However, in my defense, at the beginning of the endeavor, when I first sat down and calculated (1) my likely wreath production and (2) the projected “of-course-they’ll-buy-it” sales numbers, the whole thing made absolute fiscal sense. After all, the hills of Brown County were thick with free, wild grapevines, and the nearby tourist town of Nashville, Indiana, was even thicker with visitors who seemed to possess an insatiable desire to purchase expensive decorative wreaths. According to my detailed projections, I’d be able to make enough wreaths in the mornings to then have my afternoons and evenings entirely free to write. In addition, the calculations also indicated that I’d soon make so many wreaths and have so much money that I’d also be able to take the entire winter off—that I’d enjoy the incomprehensible luxury of having a whole winter to work on the novel.
At the office job I’d left, my daily work uniform was a pressed suit, ironed shirt, silk necktie, wingtip shoes with a bright-polished sheen, a soft leather briefcase, and a clean-shaven face. In contrast, when I walked into the woods to make grapevine wreaths, my uniform was a torn chambray shirt, dirty jeans covered by thick leather snake chaps to protect my legs from rattlesnake strikes, a frayed red bandanna sweatband, a sheath knife on my belt, and a six-foot-long walking staff.
I also grew a beard.
An Incredible Year
My wife, son, and I spent almost exactly one year living in our rustic cabin. It was an incredible year. One of our all-time favorites. At night we listened to the owls calling in the tall pines, saw worlds of stars glowing in the sky above us, and stared into luminescent constellations of glow-worms scattered across the ground beneath our feet. During the day we went gold panning in clear streams, took long, wandering hikes, and made enough memories to fill ten years of “real life.”
But my earlier wreath-making calculations and financial projections had been wrong. So very, very wrong. Crazy, full-blown “You’re an idiot!” wrong. Even after making wreaths all day, every day, through the spring, summer, and fall, there were no extra wreaths, and no extra time, and absolutely no extra money. Not a bit. And when the cold winds came and the snow fell, there certainly wasn’t an entire winter to relax and spend writing. Instead, to keep us in firewood and food, I took a job with a weirdly talented, artisan construction crew that built magnificent, expensive, mortise-and-tenon timber frame homes. The crew spent their time building the huge homes, and I spent my time trying not to break the mortises and tenons. Or my wrists and ankles.
Right around then is also when Elissa and I started thinking about the idea that our son might like a brother or a sister. And that idea started us thinking about the wonderful value of a regular paycheck. And health insurance. And a regular paycheck.
With our time in the woods clearly coming to an end, I began trying to decide which new life-direction to point myself in. I dug deep into my creativity and imagination as I considered which new career to begin, which original and groundbreaking path to pursue. After much soul-searching and much, much more beer, an unexpected answer suddenly came to mind, something absolutely unoriginal and even more un-groundbreaking: Call my ex-employer. Ask for my old job back. Offer them a mountain of free grapevine wreaths if they’d say yes.
They said yes. Thank God.
So the novel didn’t get written. Didn’t really even get started. A few short stories, sure. And a lot of individual, unconnected paragraphs. And notebooks full of descriptions and characters that I thought were pretty neat. But no book.
We left the cabin and went back to the city. Got the regular paycheck. Got the health plan. And not much later, our son had a little sister. After that, another eleven years went by pretty quickly. During those years, the same company that allowed me to return from the woods also decided to promote me to CEO…a decision that I worried might be a serious judgment error on their part, given how—not too long before—I’d been wearing a sharp knife, snake chaps, and a beard. However, in the end, things all seemed to work out. Looking back now, I can see that I had a great time with a great company and a lot of great people. But during that time, I didn’t see much of Elissa or my son (who by that time was a high school freshman) or my daughter (suddenly a fifth grader).
Also, while working in the corporate world, I not only missed my family, but I still wanted to write a novel.
So once again, Elissa agreed to the unthinkable. And once again, I resigned from my job. Truthfully, I don’t know why she lets me do these things. Maybe it’s so that things don’t ever get too boring. I know for certain that things don’t ever get too comfortable.
For the next two years, I spent time getting to know my family again. And I finally wrote my novel—Jonah’s Belly. We didn’t move back to the cabin that time. We didn’t have to. It turns out that I still had plenty of Brown County left in my mind and in my heart. Enough to fill a book.
A wreath-making memory
One day in the woods, I reached up with both hands into a high, dense knot of grapevines overhead. I tightened my two-fisted hold on a big vine, then yanked hard to pull it down out of the tree branches it was tightly wrapped around…except I wasn’t holding a vine. Instead of pulling down a vine, I pulled a seven-foot-long black rat snake out of the tree where it was sleeping. In that moment, the snake and I were both equally surprised, but he handled his shock much better than I did. The snake maintained a dignified silence, while I high-screamed like a frightened child and jerkily jump-hopped through the trees, temporarily unable to relax my grip on the poor guy and drop him to the ground. Finally, however, I managed to let go and we both slunk away, and—once again—he did it with much more style and grace than me.
Another wreath-making memory
After spending an entire day working in the woods, I somehow became turned around (okay, I was lost) and exited the forest at an unfamiliar spot. As usual, when I stepped out from the tree line, I was covered in a layer of the day’s bits of leaf and vine and dirt. I was also sweating, unshaven, wearing a sheath knife on my belt, and the grapevine wreaths I was carrying across my shoulders looked like a writhing nest of snakes growing out of my back…in other words, I was not the kind of wildlife surprise that an innocent, picnicking family of tourists expected to see step out of the woods beside their remote SCENIC OVERLOOK dining spot. My arrival truly terrified them—and who can blame them for their panicked shouting and adrenaline-fueled escape away from the filthy, knife-wielding, hulking Sasquatch that had suddenly materialized in their presence? Truthfully though, it was odd to stand there and watch them evacuate the area, realizing that I was the reason they’d abandoned their red-checkered picnic blanket and plates of food as they grabbed up their crying children, ran to their car, locked their doors, and drove away in a fury of spinning tires and foot-to-the-floor acceleration.
If they’d stayed a little longer, I would have given them a wreath.
Once upon a time, a very long time ago, on Jonah’s Belly…