Writing the Old Roads

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It’s 2:27 AM and I just got home from a little cabin in the Tennessee mountains, where a logger taught me something about art and writing. We were there because we had a lot of work to do on a story, and we needed a secluded place to work. A place with no distractions. No cell service.

Our host grinned, hitched up his jeans and pointed across a 1,000 acre valley. “See that loggin’ road yonder? The one on the opposite ridge?” We peered into the distance and nodded. “I built that one.” He was a big, tough man with a kind face. It was clear that he took pride in his work, and joy, too. He asked us a little about our music and writing, then said, “What I do when I build roads isn’t that much different from what you do. I have to figure out how to get from here to there. I look at a place and imagine a road. Takes a fair bit of creativity.”

Well, that was about as fine an analogy as I could have asked for. And then it got better.

“You’d be amazed at what I find down there in the valley. You find ruins. Old houses and stone walls. Homeplaces that have been out there Lord knows how long. I don’t know what those people were doing so far out, or how they ended up there, but those fields at the bottom of the bowl were farmed once. And most of this forest’s already been logged. You can tell. And back then they did it with mules. So when I’m looking for the best route for my road, for the easiest way to get down the mountain, I just look for the old mule trails. Every single time, the mule trails are the best possible route.”

What does that tell you about stories? Songs? Art?

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


23 Comments

  1. cinda-cite

    it’s just like that up here in maine. check out the map–lots of land without much road apparent. but these logging roads are all over even here in the mountains. with old settler foundations, cellar holes, some with giant trees growing up inside.

    the only thing much different is the grin. you don’t see that up here. {{grin}}

  2. Dieta

    That simple is sometimes better. For all of the laptos, tweets, facebooks, cell phones-sometimes a pencil and paper and your own quiet inspiration and imagination are still the best way. My kids think I’m elderly because I bake bread from scrath for communion on Sundays, can preserves in the summer, and as of November, have taken up quilting with a vengeance. They have actually announced they think I may leave at any moment to join an Amish community. Not so-I love my cell phone and my computer and my tivo, but I also LOVE working with my hands in the quiet with myself. Whether I’m cooking, baking, sewing-my hands are busy and I get a pleasing end result that is useful. What a joy! Give me the mule.

  3. JacobT

    I guess when doing anything creative there is a certain “craft” about it that will work no matter when you live. I’ve heard it said that originality is not necessarily a biblical concept (for men that is, not God). Creativity does not necessarily have to mean originality. Sometimes the old paths work better for a reason.

  4. Tony from Pandora

    I believe it was C.S. Lewis’ practice to read at least one book that was over 100 years old in between the many newer books that he read. His thought was that old knowledge was viewed dated and not worthwhile. Then you read a book with “new and exciting” ideas only to find that these same thoughts were in a book two hundred years ago. He was concerned about old knowledge getting lost. Chronological snobbery is what he called it.

    Now that I’m thinking about it, I think the Rabbit Room may have addressed this before…

  5. Todd Hollback

    Thanks AP!
    Reminds me of that verse from Jeremiah:

    Thus says the LORD:”Stand by the roads, and look,
    and ask for the ancient paths,
    where the good way is; and walk in it,
    and find rest for your souls.

    – Jeremiah 6:16

  6. JJ

    Great post AP. But I can’t help but think of that old John Denver song. Blame my parents and our Pinto’s 8-track deck.

  7. Phil Wade

    When he got into the valley, he discovered all kinds of history from people who had been there before him. Isn’t that the way with studied artwork? We start writing and discover, in a sense, character details, setting questions, or facts that deepen the story and even tell other stories. We write or compose toward a goal, and once we’re in it, we remember a traditional verse or melody line that goes in the same direction. And maybe, like the old mule trails, it’s the path of least resistance. Maybe following that path will make the finished artwork the most resonant with others.

  8. Chris Yokel

    It means that God is the only one who creates ex nihilo, and the rest of us are all, as Tolkien said, sub-creators, building off of what the great Creator has made.

  9. Shelley R.

    As sub-creators then….must one always take the mule trail? Building a road is visionary work, but some songs, some poems may only need to parallel the old–in harmony. It all depends on the desired path that you want your audience to travel. When writing, I do at times take the best possible route to communicate and forge ahead. Others, I’ll veer off and take the meandering deer trail that leads to a hidden eddy and offer those with me a pause for a crisp, refreshing drink.

  10. kara chase

    when i listen to someone’s song, i am following a road that has already been forged. if it is good, and i appreciate where it leads, then i’ll follow it again. when i write a song, i am searching for a road, one that hasn’t been visible for years, and following it deep into the landscape within. it is wild here, overgrown, but desperately needing to be lingered in a while.

  11. Christopher Dilworth

    And maybe that’s why I have to do what I have to do. I’ll wing it if someone asks me to (like when I was asked to do an intermission once and totally flubbed it… sorry…) But sometimes, you just have to look at the road that was trodden once and contemplate the reasons for possibly going there and then deciding that that is the path worth following without the distractions that others throw you on the way to a destination unknown and yet a destination needing visited at a mule’s pace. Because if you don’t…no one else may ever have the pleasure of knowing what peace is.

  12. Joy C

    Andrew, I just wanted you to know:

    For Easter at the prison and a nearby church, I printed out your meditation from the back of RLII, “He came back…” I put it on Easter-egg colored card stock and made 200-some copies. It was read and given out at three Easter services and three Bible studies, and made an impact every time. The Holy Spirit used it. Thanks. Please come back. And thanks for that Easter song in your last post. Joy

  13. becky

    Makes me think of two things. 1) There is nothing new under the sun. 2) Creativity is not a particular activity. It is a way of looking at life, and at whatever our hands find to do.

  14. Heather

    It really is a beautiful analogy when you think about it…those old homes in the valley. We all spend time traveling through valleys. Some of us stay there longer than others. Those old abandoned homes, just like our old lives, are left behind when we find the Lord and he changes the paths of our lives. Yet it is in those quiet, often lonely valleys where we are truly able to “be still and know that [he] is God.” It is a rare thing to experience that in today’s busy, noisy world.

  15. Heather

    Okay, now I get it. After being caught up in the beauty of the imagery, it finally hit me. Thank you for reminding us that we are not in this life alone. When I think of all the people past and present who have influenced and shaped my life, all I can think to say is “Wow, God is so good!” Just like the logger built his road on old mule trails, our lives have been shaped and influenced by the successes and failures of those who came before us and who walk beside us. God created us to need these relationships. It also makes us think about what our life journey will communicate to those who follow us. Who will we inspire?

  16. Michele

    We take ourselves too seriously sometimes. We want to be innovative, to do something new and different. But what if the new and different, original way through the woods is not the best way to get there? There may be occasions when it is, but MOST of the time it’s going to take you out of your way, or through unpleasant places – because the people who have gone before have already found the shortest or most sensible – or beautiful – paths, and why take someone farther than they need to go – unless of course, there’s a view along the way that’s spectacular – but if so, you can almost guarantee that someone’s been there before you.

    There is something about a road that is tried and true, that has been found to truly serve those who use it. There is no shame in taking that road and making it more visible, easier to find, more accessible, a little more pleasant to travel. But we must not make the mistake of forgetting that the road was already there.

    I agree with Chris, and I like what Todd said in an earlier post, quoting Jeremiah about the ancient paths. It is not our job to make a new way, but to help people to find those ancient paths, and perhaps to help make the journey on them a little more pleasant and beautiful.

    Thanks for posting this, AP, it was really beautiful and I’ve enjoyed thinking about it this week.

  17. Vaughn Stafford

    “New to the table”. My name is Vaughn Stafford, I have been a studio vocalist for about 25 years. I am serving as the pastor of worship and design at St James UMC in Montgomery, AL. I have just returned from the Holy Lands in January and saw this metaphor lived out. The 26 layers of Megiddo speak to the wisdom of living in certain places. All I kept thinking about was the beautiful image of valley travel. Some of the most magnificient growth is only seen in the lowest places, where streams run free and roots grow deep. Many of these places are prone to flooding, but carry with them the beautiful blanket of color only found near their source. At the entrance of Petra they found 2000 year old water channels that carried water away from the entrance after flash floods killed more than a dozen tourists a few years ago. These were unearthed as modern engineers “discovered” them while digging out the same tunnels.

  18. Jared Hard

    The hope of road building: knowing where you want to go before you begin.

    The reality of road building: figuring out along the way that there are better places to go.

    I loved the imagery of a man standing in a forest and seeing a distant location and suddenly a road appearing before him, semi-transparent against the ancient wood and scrambling underbrush.
    I’m sure the logger has learned to be flexible with his roads when obvious obstacles arise.

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