learning from the schlep

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree," Lincoln said, "and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." Good advice for 19th-century lumberjack Presidents. Bad advice for writers.

Chop first. Chop a whole cord of wood. Then reach for the whetstone. Even better, chop a whole grove of trees. When you can't see your way out of the log maze and your axe is down to a nub, buy a new axe and sharpen that one instead.

Not every endeavor can be optimized before the fact. Take the refined craft of masochism known as rucking. To ruck—go ruck? go for a ruck?—you slide a flat weight into a reinforced backpack and then wear it for a walk.

Rucking is a thing that backpack manufacturers would have you believe people actually do. Swayed by this transparent marketing tactic and in search of a low-impact, outdoor workout during lockdown, I bought one of these special weights, popped it in a rucking backpack, and went the ruck outside.

"I get it now," I said to myself as I observed the enjoyable process of walking transform into soul-sucking, shoulder-scouring drudgery. "Rucking is a Midwestern synonym for schlepping." Pop and soda. Fountain and bubbler. Ruck and schlep. Regional differences.

To deschlepify the process of rucking, I could have spent all morning fiddling with the backpack before stepping outside. Only by dragging myself through town in the heat for an hour, however, would I have ever discovered where the fabric of the straps ground most painfully into my meager deltoids. Nor would careful thought and planning have prevented the bottom edge of the weight from banging into my sacrum with every step. I learned to ruck more comfortably only through the miserable process of doing it. Pain and frustration taught me everything I needed. If I'd tried to optimize myself out of that misery before I started, I'd never have gotten myself out the door.

When do you sharpen the axe, and when do you swing till those callouses form? The real question is, is this a schlep? A true schlep of a job isn't self-sustaining. If I've got someone to talk to, I can walk all day without effort. Give me a tire iron to lug and I'll start making promises to myself: "If you make it to the next corner, you can check email on your phone. If you go five more blocks, you can buy yourself a coffee."

You don't feel good after a schlep. Far from it! At best, you're glad it's over, but even the relief is woven together with irritation and resentment. If this reminds you of a writing session, especially one early in a project or a career, you're schlepping. It's unfamiliar, it's uncomfortable, and you have the nagging sense that there's an easier way. A shortcut. Perhaps if you stopped chopping for a moment and actually sharpened this damned axe...

Don't fall for the temptation. You can't think yourself to the shortcut. As a writer, you have to take the long, hot, and dusty road first. You have to get lost, stub your toe, hate every minute. As you put the words down—inefficiently, inelegantly, uncomfortably—you'll stumble into insights. Over time, those insights will accumulate. Eventually, you'll be schlepping only slightly. Until the next rucking job comes along, anyway. Then you're well and truly rucked.

Subscribe to The Maven Game

Don’t miss out on the latest essays. Sign up now.