They Just Dig: On Writing, Coal Mining, and Fear
The Hard Work of Excavating Trauma
“Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included.
Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day
talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”
–Cheryl Strayed, Dear Sugar #48: “Write Like a Motherfucker”
I come from coal miners: men who lost fingers and arms, the man whose bones were crushed under a rolling coal cart, the one who lived through a leg-cracking explosion, the many whose lungs turned black from decades of dusty inhalations or whose livers buckled under the weight of the after-work rotgut that momentarily knocked out the dread.
I have always known that coal mining is harder than writing.
Most of the men in my family who died in Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill anthracite region have arteriosclerosis on their death certificates—unless they died by suicide or mine accident or, just once, miner’s asthma, 30 yrs.—because until the 1930s the medical establishment denied that the inhalation of coal dust was unhealthy. Doctors insisted it could ward off tuberculosis.
My grandpa worked as a laborer for a bootleg mine when he was young, helping to provide for his family after his miner dad died, but he didn’t make mining a career. He was part of Eisenhower’s flight crew during World War II, then worked for Pan Am as a flight engineer until his retirement. My dad got to choose his career as a fish biologist. I choose to write about my life and teach other writers how to do the same.
I’ve started writing about coal mining. I’ve read thousands of pages about it. I’ve thought about the Dear Sugar quote I’ve seen posted on Facebook so many times that I forgot that it wasn’t an anonymous aphorism. When I found the source and reread the column, Sugar’s powerful advice to a fellow Elissa-writer resonated. I, too, find myself blocked by an ego that demands unattainable greatness. But that’s not the only bulwark I erect between myself and a finished draft.
When I read and write about my family and their work, I think of what Sugar said about coal mining, extract her lines like a chunk of anthracite from a coal face, and project my own meaning onto the words.
I think about how writing is not as hard as coal mining when interviewers and other askers want to know how hard it was for me to write my first book. I’m afraid to say that it was hard, so I usually don’t. If I do say it was hard, I pile on the evidence: in the beginning, I went from smoking casually to smoking more than a pack a day, waking up nicotine-starved and walking-pneumonia-sick. I could only write drunk, stuffed with potato skins. I had panic attacks and hid in the bowels of my closet. I wanted the physical pain of crumpled lungs and weeping liver to outstrip the emotional pain of remembering being raped and defiled.
It was hard work: not just the transmutation of memory into prose, but also the work of reacting to loosened memories I’d hidden from myself. I almost never remembered these things during my writing hours, when I was prepared to be an open seam. I remembered when I was trying to hold it together, in the classroom, riding the bus, watering a cactus and accidentally drowning it when my skull became an echo chamber for that long-forgotten thing the rapist used to say to me when he was trying to convince me that I wanted it.
It was work I keep wanting to call excavation. I keep wanting to say that the memories were buried. I know this is not how remembering works, but I need to label that feeling that I’m digging my hand into my brain and pushing until my fingertips are sliced by tiny jagged rocks.
Anthracite mining was “the most dangerous job of the day,” according to Donald L. Miller and Richard E. Sharpless, authors of The Kingdom of Coal: Work, Enterprise, and Ethnic Communities in the Mine Fields. Mine workers risked being buried under falling coal, sliced by the loosened anthracite’s razor edges, blasted by faulty fuses, poisoned by underground gases, and crushed under heavy coal cars. With every day they escaped sudden death, they neared the inevitable death by smothering that would come from years of inhaled coal dust particles that the body can’t expel. Anthracosis. Miner’s asthma. Black lung.
“They simply dig,” Strayed wrote. But they didn’t. Anthracite miners would routinely strike, defy authority, repeat that “A miner is his own boss,” and walk out when they decided the day’s work was done. And the digging was never simple: every move was a decision that could result in death. The miners took pride in propping the roof with wooden beams, in the drilling of holes, in the preparation of explosives, in the blasting, and in the picking of loosened coal. This was a set of decisions and actions they thought of as craft.
I feel badly about this metaphor I’m trying to build, because I know I shouldn’t liken mining to writing. But I come from resistance to authority, a tradition the men picked up when they began work as boys who picked slate from coal until their fingers bled. I come from people who are proud to do work well and who built an oral tradition around their loathing of this calling.
Proud as they were, mine workers did talk a lot about how hard their work was. They stood around in the shit-and-exhalation-stinking mines and talked about it. They drank rotgut at the saloon and talked about it. They told stories about it. They sang about it. They passed ballads across generations. George Korson writes in Black Rock: Mining Folklore of the Pennsylvania Dutch that on the side of a coal car, one miner chalked the message,
I’ll have you know, Mr. Dunne,
That with this car my day is done.
If you don’t like my work or poem,
You can go to hell, I’m going home!
“Only a Miner,” the folk song that Archie Green calls “the American Miner’s national anthem” in his book Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs, was passed around from singer to singer from 1888 until its recording in 1928. The song isn’t about coal mining, specifically, but it fits:
He’s only a miner been killed in the ground,
Only a miner and one more is found,
Killed by an accident, no one can tell,
His mining’s all over, poor miner farewell.
Underground anthracite mining was a craft requiring concentration, fearlessness, and the belief that the work was in one’s blood. The miners could only return to work every day because they negotiated their relationships with death by telling stories, which have been passed around with such vigor that we retain them and can see, in their totality, a preoccupation with the dead and injured. The single detail I’ve heard most in stories about my dad’s grandpa Edmund is that he was missing his thumb.
* * * *
Novelist John Greene drew the mining-writing connection, too, on his website: “I [. . .] like to remind myself of something my dad said to me once in re. writers’ block: ‘Coal miners don’t get coal miners’ block.’”
When I’m blocked, it’s not because I’ve run out of ideas. It’s because I’m afraid of the ones I have on hand.
The mine workers were afraid, too, but not like writers. They dealt with their fears of being trapped underground by propping the roof with beams. From what I can tell, this was a mostly meaningless gesture that was most successful in convincing miners that they had the power to protect themselves from death. They also believed that the rats had extrasensory perceptive abilities that allowed them to predict cave-ins, and so they fed the rats from their lunch pails.
Miners could convince themselves that they were not going to die; I cannot always convince myself that I can make the page stop being blank.
Mostly, for mine workers, the fear of death and accidents was really the fear that loss of income would make their families destitute. Miners could stand around half the day telling stories about men buried alive because the coal face seemed endless, ready to continue giving. They could easily cut enough coal to provide for their families, and the work allowed for the mix of urgency and complacency: they were working for bread, the food that became metaphor in their homes, and they were working to make other men rich.
I should mention these families—more specifically, the wives—and acknowledge that, for the most part, I identify more with the miners than with the women whose occupations were listed on the census as “keeping house,” “none,” or a blank space. All of these entailed harder work than I have ever done: preparing meals, washing clothes (including those caked with coal dust), picking bits of discarded coal from the culm banks to heat the home, washing the man, making and rearing the children (often more than a dozen, including a few who disappear from the census before the end of childhood), gathering vegetables from the gardens and huckleberries from the hills, mending, and waiting for the sound of the whistle announcing that an accident has taken off a man’s arm.
It’s possible that I don’t identify with these women because, in every book I’ve read about mining, they serve to support the tragic-heroic miners. In the 1904 book Anthracite Coal Communities: A Study of the Demography, the Social, Educational and Moral Life of the Anthracite Region, Peter Roberts writes, “As a rule the words of Napoleon are believed and practiced in the houses of the mine workers : ‘A husband ought to have absolute rule over the actions of his wife.’ The lot of the miner’s wife is a hard one.”
A writer, unlike those miners’ wives, is her own boss.
* * * *
In a 1976 article about a West Virginia mine disaster, Robert Jay Lifton and Eric Olson describe five categories of “manifestations of the general constellation of the survivor”: first, the death imprint, consisting of remembered imagery of the disaster, associated with death; second, death guilt, survivors’ inability to forgive themselves for their survival, coupled with gratitude for having done so, which deepens their guilt; third, psychic numbing, a muting in the ability to feel; fourth, impaired human relationships in which survivors need love but can’t truly accept any proffered love as genuine; and fifth, inner form, the survivor’s work of finding explanations for the devastating experience in order to find meaning in the rest of life.
In the Schuylkill fields, mine accidents were so prevalent that every miner likely had a story. Every miner was imprinted with death. Every retelling helped the miner to make sense of death as an inextricable part of the life he had built.
My fear of the forever-blank page has nothing to do with death or putting bread on the table. I just spent more on eyeglasses than I earned directly from writing in the last six months. I fear incompetence. I fear the ideas running out, the right words never arriving, and the structure never cohering. This is luxury fear. The only thing at stake is the potential for self-satisfaction.
I’ve come to learn something that probably would have become obvious earlier if I weren’t embedded with a generations-old self-immolation streak: writing is only dangerous if I make it so. I no longer douse my writer’s block with whiskey and smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. When I get stuck, I take a break to put my vitamins in their compartmentalized container or lift weights at the gym.
I suspect the writing-mining connection hits me hard because of the fatalism and predilection for deeply-felt decay passed down from my coalcrackers, but why do other writers respond to it?
Maybe it’s because we think of mining as all brawn and no brain, all danger and no art, all stakes and no reward: just a brute action of the body meant to affect a result with no attachment to quality. But I see more: a sturdy belief that mining is in the blood, a striving so ingrained that a family will send its boys to the breaker even as the father’s black-ink cough sets in. I see work that is the foundation of identity.
* * * *
Several years ago, in a professional development program for writers, our teacher asked the group how many hours per week we were writing and how many hours per week we wanted to be writing. Everyone reported that they were writing considerably fewer hours than they wanted to be—except for me. I said I didn’t know how much I was writing and I didn’t care. That was a lie. I cared a lot, but I wanted to fake away my frustration. I flagellated myself every day for what I saw as my inability to write. Years later, I’d see the publication of my second book less than a year after my debut, and I’ve spent the ensuing seven months panicked about my inability to follow up with a quick third.
They simply dig. I draft and discard book outlines. I spend an hour on ten words. I ride the intoxication of an early draft and the hangover of the devastating first look back at what I produced. I’ve always feared that I’m not up to the task of executing my grand literary plans, and I’ve repeatedly proven myself wrong. What does not come to mind when I sit down at my desk, but still surely blocks me, is the newer knowledge of what my writing does to my life among the other humans. I resist the label of “brave” because I can’t help but see my act of self-exposure, now, as naïve. I blame myself for failing to expect that a man would use my first book as a perfectly-tailored how-to manual for my emotional abuse. I told myself I was at fault when I briefly dated a man who read the book, unprompted, and interrogated me twice a week about what he saw as my irreparable damage.
My brain has begun to impose boundaries, in spite of my plans for production.
Sometimes, when I’m working out, I simply can’t lift the bar over my head for one more rep. My muscles quit. I break. I try again, but my arms refuse. Until the next time I can get to the weight room, I feel unsettled with my failure to complete a task whose end point doesn’t exist. I used to pay for CrossFit trainers that pushed me so hard I coughed up blood, which was the only time I’ve ever felt that I was working hard enough.
If I were to stop saying that my writing is going fine or really great thanks or you know I’m finally back in the swing of things and it feels good and tell the truth, I would say that I continue to be emotionally dependent on an activity that has become embedded in my sense of self while flaying me all the time, even when the writing is going well, because at any moment, that could turn. I keep doing it because pulling the exact words out of my head and embroidering them onto the page in the scheme I’ve envisioned remains the hardest work I’ve ever done, and the products of that work are beautiful to me. And I do it because this compulsive act of creation is the only way I am able to make sense of life after rape, assault, mania, depression, loss of self through overmedication, and self-destruction.
I’m tired of pretending writing isn’t hard because I feel guilty that I’m not doing something that rots me from the inside out like those men who capped every ascent from dark tunnels with a shot and a lager, or several. I can admit, as I sit in a cupcake shop on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, that I have it easier than my great-grandfather Michael, who, after his last afternoon drunk, stumbled home, his hand in nine-year-old Grandpa’s, got into bed, and died there at age fifty-one, either from black lung or a kicked liver. I have my thumbs and my lungs. I am heading for death, but when I get there, my lungs won’t be fighting to empty themselves of soot. Writing is hard work, but not hard like coal mining: it’s hard like milking the venom from a black widow and letting it go on living.
Even as the rapist was still sleeping in my bed, I sat at my laptop in the dark and began to turn my pain into a story that would help me keep living after disaster. The work has always been hard. I always hit blocks I’ll never use black powder to blast through. I stop digging. I start again, swinging my pick into my head and resuming the work of mining every last rock.