Chop wood, carry water

There is a well-known trumpet player named Rick Braun. Although a few years younger, he was born in the same city and went to the same high school as my dad. And if my memory serves, they were in high school at the same time and at least knew of each other. My dad played the trumpet in high school, even performing in a band. Many year ago, my dad saw Braun somewhere—a concert I think—and had a chance to speak with him. The story goes that my dad said something complimentary about Braun’s ability and talent. (Yes, this is all hearsay.) Braun’s reply? “What a lot of people mistake for talent is simply a lot of hard work.”

At Time in the nineteen-fifties, the entry-level job for writers was a column called Miscellany. Filled with one-sentence oddities culled from newspapers and the wire services, Miscellany ran down its third of a page like a ladder, each wee story with its own title—traditionally, and almost invariably, a pun. Writers did not long endure there, and were not meant to, but just after I showed up a hiring freeze shut the door behind me, and I wrote Miscellany for a year and a half. That came to roughly a thousand one-sentence stories, a thousand puns.

~ John McPhee from,

John McPhee is a stellar writer. He’s written a lot and, okay, sure, I get that. There are greatest-of-all-time musicians I’ve heard of who still do scales daily 30 years on. And McPhee wrote a thousand puns(!), a thousand titles, and a thousand one-sentence stories cut-down from larger stories. (And go read McPhee’s article right now, about omission.) And now here’s Braun’s comment. Frankly, I’ve heard this sentiment countless times in countless variations: The path to mastery? Chop wood, carry water.

The thing I’m not certain of though, from my dad’s story, is whether the takeaway for him was, “Oh cool, Braun’s just a regular guy who worked really hard!” or “Fudge, I shoulda’ stuck with the trumpet!”