During the period when I was working on the lines, I began to work at writing stories. I had always read–mostly thrillers about Viet Nam vets and cowboys–but somehow I stumbled onto Hemingway, and from there to Fitzgerald, Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, Tim O’Brien, and Richard Ford. In those writers I began to recognize a power, an ability to touch someone with words, and I wanted that for myself. I bought an Olivetti manual typewriter and dragged it from job to job. In the evenings after work, or on rain days, I would sit at a table in the room and type for an hour or so, until I was too tired or something else came up. There were enough excuses that I didn’t work at writing very hard.
My friends on the line were curious about what I was doing, and whenever a fight, or accident, or close call occurred on the job they would always ask, “Is that going in the book?” My climbing partner, a kid named Ben who climbed two years before he was old enough to buy beer, wanted to die a spectacular death in the story. He always said, “I have to fall at least two-hundred feet so I can scream my little lungs out.”
There was a certain romance to dangerous work, but it was consuming. Weather wore at my face and hands. Climbing aged my knees and ankles. The voices of the men I worked with had deepened and grown harsh from years of yelling at people on the ground. And it was lonely–motel rooms five nights a week, long drives from the job to my home that burned up weekends. But worse, though they were curious, no one understood about wanting to write. I pictured myself–sitting at my typewriter at night–as a young Salinger writing on weekend leave from the army, or as Hemingway writing in a tent after a day’s hunting in Africa. But I began to realize that I could spend my life writing in motel rooms and never learn what a good writing program could teach me in two years. I thought that making myself into a writer would require undivided attention, and guidance, and I knew that I would never accomplish that as a lineman.
I didn’t know what to expect out of a graduate writing program, or the people in the program. On the powerlines I talked about hunting, fishing, women, sports, building powerlines, and living away from home–the things I knew. I thought that if I had any advantage it was that I had lived a lifestyle that few people were familiar with. I knew that I wanted to write about the people and places I had lived with and worked at. I thought the confidence that I had developed on the powerlines would carry me through.
The last day I worked for TVA we clipped in new conductor wire on a powerline outside of Montery, Tennessee. I climbed five towers, but after lunch my foreman called me down and took my hardhat. Everyone on the crew signed the hat, most by nickname, the last guys I climbed with. Just before I left, Ben said, “Kill me good in the book.”