a biographer, I explore an artist’s psychological motives
and historical moments. Nothing has made me more aware of the significance
of so-called distractions in a subject’s life than my own
recent experience of shaping my second book project. After my work
on the African American novelist Ralph Ellison was reviewed in the
New York Times, my friends implored me to write another as soon
as I could. It took a year, though, to sort through the rich field
of compelling African American literary figures awaiting contemporary
biographies. And when I finally settled on a subject, the work of
shaping the project was temporarily eclipsed by a sudden passion
for an entirely
The collecting of materials had begun in earnest, and I started
feeling out publishers and middlemen. I knew I needed to sharpen
that ignoble hooker of fish, a competent book proposal. And it was
then that I discovered the joys of woodworking. Phyllis Wheatley’s
searching poem imploring inspiration from the Muses and even the
Mantuan Sage’s homeboys has nothing on the butcher block slab
riding a sawhorse and some glue. “Hear me propitious, defend
my lays,” she asked in 1773.
The muse for me begins to speak through my wife Regine’s off-hand
remark about the space under the living room window. She has dimensions
in her head that I will give birth to. As the proposal begins to
smolder on my computer, I catch holy fire in the woodshed with mitre-box
A console table, my lifeblood now, would stand twenty-seven inches
high and nestle underneath the window. Its special feature would
be a tray slung way under the belly, only five inches or so off
the ground. I would stain jet mahogany whatever wood I got from
one of the local home repair supermarkets. I want a rich look.
The idea of it gets underneath of my skin, and no telephone, email,
or dream of biographer’s Orion can interrupt me. I drive to
the local denizen of wayward husbands with a hazy vision, a misplaced
scrap of paper with the measurements, and a credit card. Because
poplar is so pretty, so smooth and dense, colored and without blemish,
I decide that I will have a plank tabletop, not a single solid piece
of wood on the piece. Shoppers bustle past, partially assemble their
own projects, or move the tanker-like gurneys down the aisle while
I figure out how to secure the tabletop to the legs. At checkout
they’re as gracious as car salesmen. Although the bill is
nearly double what I’d estimated,
I don’t hesitate. I do, however, seriously consider purchasing
a table saw and an electric planer.
The next morning I glance at the computer with its attendant worries.
I ignore its mewling for additional drafts and rounds on
the telephone and email brown-nosing support. With my fatigues on
and a punch for my hammer, I’m confident the press of my dreams
is sending a long, inviting letter, volunteering to clear permissions
for me and bringing in the high-powered editor who’ll help
me write those stylish sentences
out of A.J. Liebling with the thoroughness of Richard Ellmann.
Once I cross the threshold into the garage, my mind is at ease.
Now the sawing begins in earnest. Once I have the boards sized,
I apply liquid nails to bind them like a solid sheet. It’s
for more than an hour to level the pieces, keep the edge a true
line, and scrape off the permanent adhesive as it seeps through
When I’ve assembled the entire piece, a quantity of wood filler
and shims patches up the joints. And I am at work on an ode to my
forbears from South Hill, Virginia, who worked with their hands.
I start thinking maybe I should write a biography of slave joiners
Finally I add the trim to the piece, the last step, before sanding
it down. My greatest single investment is in an elite brand of gel-stain
from the hardware store. The one thing I don’t learn there
is that I shouldn’t use an aerosol finish in the high humidity
of Atlanta. When I finally varnish the table, it looks as if it
has been coated with a mist of fine sand. In hopes of salvaging
furniture and pride, I start polishing. We have Pine Wax, Pledge,
oil soap, and a special secret spray, all lemon scented. After working
myself into a lather, I am rewarded with an unctuous but temporary
But I can’t stop beaming after my sweaty accomplishment is
dry. I sit on the back step, stare contentedly, and touch it. When
I come home, I check on it, like I am waiting for the new baby to
make its first step. It’s not fine woodworking; just nails
and screws and glue and filler. But no one can deny the life now
filling the space that before had been empty. That I could conceive
of it, plan it, and turn out a passable version in a few days—that
there was no faxing, copying, emailing, and months of waiting. An
8 1/2 by 11 package didn’t fly thousands of miles and still
need somebody’s approval to get into long pants. It is. I’m
thinking I could have been a surgeon, or at least a mechanic. Plus,
my wife tells me I am reconnecting with my working-class roots.
Four months later the hardware store expert sells me another
ten-dollar bottle of spray to remove the humidity from the first
sandy finish. I can hear the jibes; I am a bit incredulous myself.
I admit that the table actually took longer to finish than the proposal.
But sometimes one craft makes a space where another can take shape.