Feuer and Sons, Paper Contractors

by Eric Feuer, SUNY Cortland, March 3, 2011

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"What now?" I ask. I was staring at a hole in the ground. The biggest hole I had ever seen, because it was all that remained of the five bedroom house. The fireplace, kitchen, three car garage and marble patio were gone. All memories of the house, physical and emotional, had been taken away in dump trucks and other vehicles of that sort.

"Well now we build," he said without hesitation. He took another drag of his cigarette, his third in the last ten minutes.

"What comes first?"

"The basement. Naturally." His condescending tone made me feel ignorant. But I have never built a house, let alone from scratch. "You pour the cement, you know, set the foundation." Set the foundation I thought to myself, kind of like writing a paper. Only instead of starting in the basement and working your way up, you start with an introduction and work your way down.

Any good paper, like any well built house needs a foundation. It needs something to trace its purpose back to, a floor with which to build on. While a house has a team of people working on it: the architects, contractors, electricians, plumbers, roofers and interior designers, a paper is built by one. Building a house requires having people to make decisions every step of the way. The writer is a jack of all trades.

Someone needs to decide whether cherry or oak works for the floors and if central air is the right choice. If something needs to be taken out of the plans it's gone, after the right parties have been consulted of course. But in a paper what stays and goes, or what style works best is up to the writer. If a house doesn't get finished on time there can be a number of people to blame. If a paper doesn't get completed there is only one person to point a finger at.

The cement truck rumbles down the street, its gigantic barrel of cement spinning endlessly. The truck slows down as the breaks squeal and thousands of pounds of metal and machine come to a lurching stop. Like a writer surveying a blank page, thinking of where to start, the driver looks at the vacant lot. He thinks about his past, about the jobs that have come before this. He positions the truck and releases the cement in one pull of a lever. The thick, cold liquid pours out and into the foundation blocks. Like a writer unleashes those first words upon a blank page.

Just as the cement is slowly and meticulously poured in place, I choose my words wisely. Unlike cement, which is permanent once it dries, my words can be taken out or rearranged. If a sentence doesn't fit it can be taken out with one stroke of a red pen. Even though writing is never final, it helps to take your time and think things out.

Sometimes as I'm writing an idea will come to me faster than I can process it. It's like trying to catch snowflakes on your tongue. There is only so much you can do at one time. It doesn't help when every snowflake looks perfect though. When this happens the best thing to do is write your ideas down as they come to you. If the idea truly works in the paper, it will find its place. The interior designer might have found the perfect rug for your living room, accenting the paint and trim like you never thought a rug could, but it's pointless without a floor to put it on. Like your ideas, the rug is best stored until it's needed.

Once the cement has been poured, the trucks echoing off into the distance, and your introduction paragraph is complete it's time to build. The contractors come in with their donuts and coffee in hand. They stand around and after crass jokes and sports talk they finally get down to business. The right crew is assembled and the noise begins. Hammers pound nails into two by fours and four by eights. Words give way to sentences, which transform to paragraphs. Commas and quotation marks are carefully laid out like sheetrock and spackle. Foremen keep a watchful eye on the progress, like a writer is careful not to let the paper get away from its purpose.

Slowly the house, like the paper, has begun to take shape. Walls form rooms and hallways, while spaces in the woodwork wait for windows and doors. The introduction has given way to the body paragraphs, which have consequently overflowed onto a second page. Everything is moving along as planned, with the plumbers and electricians coming in for their respective work. Just like all the circuits and pipes need to follow a specified pathway, the paper needs to flow in a cohesive manner.

Point A comes before B, which sets up C. Or maybe C comes first, leading backwards to A. Whatever order the writer decides is best for the paper, even if there is no order, it's a good idea to be consistent. You wouldn't want to read a carelessly written paper just like you wouldn't want to live in a house with faulty plumbing. Let me know how that works when you flush the toilet and the shower turns on.

After the electricians and plumbers have done their job the contractor comes back and surveys the house again, making sure nothing has been forgotten. Going back and checking your work while you write can be a useful tool. Sometimes it helps to scan over what you have written, even if the paper is incomplete. You can find simple errors, or trains of thought that have no destination. You can get rid of the clutter before it derails your paper all together.

"Does the roof go last?" I knew it was a stupid question before I asked it. He stared ahead, concentrating on his cigarette and not my question.


"But you said bottom to top. Isn't the roof the top?"

"Technically yes, but with no roof you wouldn't be comfortable putting in new floors and furniture. What if it rains?" He had a point, as usual. He had a point from the start, that he knew what he was doing and I didn't. But I knew how to write a paper. I had that over him, just like a roof.

Once the roof has been laid and the door and windows have all been put in, it's time to make this house look like a home. Now the rug can be put in the living room, right between the Italian leather couches. The bedroom can be painted and the shower curtains hung. That idea I got back on page one can finally go down on page three. The dialogue I took out of the second paragraph actually fits better in the conclusion, and that quote about horses isn't as funny as I thought it was. In fact it's just plain dumb, so I take it out.

The paper, like the house, is complete. I started with a blank page, a hole in the ground, and built our foundation. We added walls, floors, and rooms. One page became three, which grew to five. Ideas were thrown around, some good and some bad.

Metaphors and hyperboles were added to the paper, while spelling and punctuation errors were removed faster than they had been made. A family has a home and I have a paper. That contractor isn't the only one who knows how to build something of substance. I'd like to see him ask me how to write a paper.

"Where do we start?" he inquired, glancing nervously at the blank page.

"The introduction," I said. "Naturally."

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